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Arab-American Attorney Abdeen Jabara: I Was Spied on by the National Security Agency 40 Years Ago

StoryOctober 17, 2013
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As more revelations come to light about the National Security Agency, we speak to civil rights attorney Abdeen Jabara, co-founder of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. He was involved in a groundbreaking court case in the 1970s that forced the NSA to acknowledge it had been spying on him since 1967. At the time of the spying, Jabara was a lawyer in Detroit representing Arab-American clients and people being targeted by the FBI. The disclosure was the first time the NSA admitted it had spied on an American.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn now to a—perhaps related, but certainly to the climate, I want to end today’s show on the National Security Agency. Our guest here in New York, Abdeen Jabara, who was co-founder of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, was involved in a groundbreaking court case in the 1970s that forced the National Security Agency to acknowledge it had been spying on him since 1967. The disclosure was the first time, I believe, that the NSA admitted it had spied on an American. I mean, this is at a time, Abdeen Jabara, that most people had no idea what the NSA was. This is not like these last few months.

ABDEEN JABARA: Well, it was—this is very interesting. I didn’t know what the NSA was. I mean, I started a lawsuit against the FBI, because I thought that the FBI had been spying on me and monitoring my activities—


ABDEEN JABARA: —and that of my clients. Well, I’ll tell you why. Because I had been very, very active in Palestinian support work. And one day I read in Newsweek magazine, in the Periscope section, that 26 Arabs in the United States had been targeted for surveillance, electronic surveillance. So, I thought, surely, some of those had been clients of mine or had talked to me on the phone about issues and so forth. And that’s when I brought the lawsuit. And—

AMY GOODMAN: So you sued the FBI in 1972.

ABDEEN JABARA: Right, I sued the FBI in 1972, and the FBI answered. And on the issue about electronic surveillance, they declined to answer on the basis that it was privileged and state secret. At that point in time, the ACLU came in to represent me, and we forced them to answer that question. They admitted that there had been some overhears, alright, that I had not been personally targeted for electronic surveillance, but there had been overhears of my conversations with some of my clients. And they also said they received information from other federal agencies. And they didn’t want to answer that, who that agency was. And the court compelled them to answer. And it turned out that other agency was the NSA. And we didn’t know, you know, what the NSA was. Jim Bamford’s book, The Puzzle Palace, hadn’t yet been published. And we found out that the FBI had requested any information that the NSA had, and the NSA had six different communications that I had made. I was president of the Association of American Arab University Graduates in 1972, so I had a great deal of work on my plate as the president of the association. And I don’t know what these communications were.

And the district court, Judge Ralph Freeman, held that my First Amendment and my Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. An appeal was made to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. And the Sixth Circuit set aside part of that ruling, saying that there is no violation of a Fourth Amendment right by the National Security Agency to surveil an American’s communications overseas, even though the person is not a foreign agent. And, in fact, five years ago, Congress codified that, where they have said—and there’s an article in today’s New York Times about this—by saying that there’s no warrant requirement where the target is a foreign target, even though an American citizen is communicating overseas.

So, this whole issue, I was surprised, after all the revelations about the Snowden-NSA brouhaha, that nobody had looked back at what had occurred back in the—in the ’70s to show that at that time it came out in the press that over 1,600 Americans had been surveilled by the NSA. And this was before the passage of FISA, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Out of that issue in the ’70s, they passed this FISA Act, which said that—and they set up a secret court, which is the national security court. The judges of that are appointed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

AMY GOODMAN: We have less than a minute. So—


AMY GOODMAN: —keep going.

ABDEEN JABARA: So, they set that up, and they said that that will create safeguards, alright? This will create safeguards, and that the only targets can be foreign agents.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Abdeen Jabara, so there are all these records on you, not only that the FBI and NSA had. How many other agencies had them? And did you get them expunged?

ABDEEN JABARA: As a matter of fact, I did. After the case was remanded to the trial court, the district in Detroit, we entered into a settlement with the FBI whereby they acknowledged that I had not been in violation of any U.S. laws, that I had been exercising my constitutional rights, and that they would destroy the entire file that they had collected on me.

AMY GOODMAN: How many agencies had they shared this file with?

ABDEEN JABARA: They had shared it with three foreign governments and 17—

AMY GOODMAN: Which governments?

ABDEEN JABARA: —17 domestic agencies.

AMY GOODMAN: Which governments?

ABDEEN JABARA: Well, they didn’t tell us.


ABDEEN JABARA: But you can just surmise.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us. Thank you so much, Abdeen Jabara, former vice chair of the ADC, one of the founders of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee; Albert Mokhiber, former president of the ADC; and Congressmember John Conyers. Congratulations on your almost 50 years of service.

I’ll be speaking on Saturday at 2:00 at the Green Fest in Los Angeles, and at 6:00 at Newport Beach Marriott in California.

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