It's come up repeatedly in recent political debates: the idea of monitoring U.S. residents based solely on their religion.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas defended his idea of having law enforcement patrol Muslim neighborhoods in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Brussels. And candidate Donald Trump, on the Republican side also, has called for surveillance of certain mosques in the United States. But according to a report by a journalist working with former CIA employee turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden, the United States government already has monitored prominent Muslim-Americans – by probing their e-mails.
That alleged surveillance has up-ended the lives of some of the targeted U.S. citizens, casting suspicion on them and dogging their personal, political and professional lives.
Faisal Gill knows about this firsthand. Despite being cleared of any wrongdoing or suspicious activity, he was ultimately compelled to resign from government service in Washington, D.C. All of this, he says, happened before he decided to move to Vermont, making his new home in Winooski, where he now lives. VPR visited him there recently to hear his story.
Gill says it wasn’t until 2014 that he learned the federal government had allegedly been screening his emails. He was contacted by Glenn Greenwald, the news reporter to whom Edward Snowden gave all the documents that he took from the National Security Agency (NSA).
“So I went to New York to meet with Glenn Greenwald. And that's where he told me that, 'Hey, I'm sorry to tell you this, but between the years of 2006 and 2008 the NSA was monitoring your e-mails.
Gill says one of the many frustrations was that he never had any indication why covert surveillance by NSA and FBI took place. He says permission to surveil his email was likely granted by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, which operates in secret.
“If you look at the statute, there are four or five categories for why they do surveil people. And they're all fairly, you know, ominous sounding: If you have connections with a foreign government; if you are an agent a foreign government; if you are suspected of terrorist activities. Categories like that, and you know, I had nothing like that.”
Gill says because the court meets in secret, there’s no way to know what it counts as reasonable suspicion.
“The prosecutors and the FBI agents go down [to court] and they issue out an affidavit and say we suspect this person. And then we don't know what happens. What we do know is, 98 percent or 99 percent of all the warrants are approved. And if you go down to Chittenden County Superior Court here and you ask how many ones are approved, I doubt it's that many.”
On being profiled as a Muslim
Gill believes without question that the only reason he was surveilled is because he is a Muslim-American.
“I was born in Pakistan and, you know, and I hate to say this, but I don't know what else to say, is that I'm active. You know, politically, and I'm out there as a Muslim-American and I think that was probably one of the reasons that I was surveilled.”
Gills says during the years his emailed was being screened, in 2006 and 2008, he was running as a Republican candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates.
"And I was pretty, always involved in local community, always involved in Muslim advocacy groups. And if you look at all the folks who are involved in Muslim advocacy groups, the list that of the [people] that were surveilled, they're all folks who are fairly active in the Muslim advocacy community. So I think that that kind of had something to do with it.
On profiling affecting his personal and professional life
"From a personal level, when my kids go somewhere, I mean everybody these days Googles you, right? … When they Google me, all this stuff comes up and they don't know what to make of it. So it's affected my kids … I've had you know school officials say, 'Yeah, we Googled you, and it was kind of interesting.'
Professionally, Gill says once he left Department of Homeland Security, he was “absolutely unemployable.”
“Nobody wants a lawyer that has any issues or that's been suspected of terrorism, or has been, you know, surveilled or was accused of lying on a security clearance forms. That just does not make you employable.”
When news came out that Gill had been investigated – and completely cleared of any wrongdoing– by a Homeland Security office, his offer to work for a Washington, D.C., law firm was rescinded. Gill ultimately went to work for a friend’s company in California.
A few years later, he decided to move his family back to the east coast, and he picked Vermont.
“I was looking for someplace to, you know, raise my kids. We'd been coming to Vermont for years, vacationing in Vermont and liked it, and I thought it was a nice place.”
Reflecting on Vermont
“Vermont has been great. Now, I'm not going to say it's been perfect. But for the most part, overwhelmingly, the people in Vermont have been absolutely fantastic. The school that my daughter goes to, they have been great. When they found out about my story, instead of worrying about it, they had me in. They had me speak to the class, and you know, know the class was very receptive. The teachers have been great. So, you know, Vermont's been a pretty very welcoming place, especially here in Winooski.”
On the national political climate
Senator Ted Cruz made comments after the Brussels attacks where he suggested that Muslim neighborhoods in the U.S. should be patrolled.
“I think that's one of the most dangerous things that is being talked about right now. And it's also counterproductive to what Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are trying to accomplish, which is, you know, make America safe from terrorist activities.”
Gill says Muslim-Americans may be the front lines because of their connectivity to mosques and community places where some terrorists may be working to recruit people.
“And what we want is, we want the Muslim community basically coming forward and saying, 'Hey look,' to law enforcement. You know, we see this, we hear this. And they already are, in other communities,” says Gill, pointing to Dearborn, Michigan and several communities in northern Virginia.
On running for state Senate in Vermont
“It was a big decision,” Gill says. “So, there's a couple of reasons. There's issues that are really important to me, you know, higher education, which is what I’m talking about. And that's the one that really moves me.
“But at the same time, you know, I do think that it does send a message that a Muslim-American in this year, with this rhetoric on the national level, can run from a state such as Vermont, which is, you know, not that diverse and, who knows, have a good shot of winning. And if I'm successful, I think it will send a great message that not all Americans are like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump profess them to be.”