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      How Many More FBI Documents Contain the Phrase 'Mohammed Raghead'?

      Primary Sources

      How Many More FBI Documents Contain the Phrase 'Mohammed Raghead'?

      By Jason Leopold

      Last year, Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists to whom former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified NSA documents, co-wrote a story about the NSA and FBI's surveillance of five high-profile Muslim Americans.

      The lengthy report, based on classified documents from the Snowden trove, contained a particularly inflammatory nugget of information: The FBI and NSA used "Mohammed Raghead" as a placeholder for the name of a surveillance target in a government template advising intelligence community personnel how to write surveillance requests. The slur was seized upon by dozens of news outlets. It also prompted the White House to call upon the director of National Intelligence to launch a "diversity and tolerance" review.

      That review is apparently still ongoing. But VICE News was curious whether the use of Mohammed Raghead in an official government document was an isolated incident or more widespread. So in July 2014 we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the FBI, CIA, and NSA to find out.

      We asked the agencies for every document that mentioned or referred to Mohammed Raghead. More than a year later, the FBI responded by turning over 56 pages of heavily redacted documents; the NSA and CIA are still processing our request. The FBI said it found a grand total of 86 pages, but redacted and/or withheld information on national security and privacy grounds, because they are considered "deliberative," and because disclosure of the withheld material could reveal law enforcement techniques and procedures. Some Mohammed Raghead–related records, according to the FBI, originated with other government agencies and were sent to them for review for a final decision on whether they could be released.

      The bulk of the documents that were released are internal FBI emails that counterterrorism, national security, and public affairs officials exchanged about the initial July 9, 2014 Intercept report and several other news stories published a month later by the site. Emails highlighting the story were also flagged for officials in the Office of the Deputy Attorney General and other Department of Justice officials (DOJ).

      "The long-awaited Greenwald story posted last night, and I am providing this link for your awareness and reading pleasure," wrote an FBI public affairs employee whose name was redacted.

      '[Government officials] were trying to convince other media outlets that we had our story wrong, in the hopes that they would prevent the story from getting coverage.'

      A day before the Intercept report was published, an FBI employee emailed coworkers a tweet, redacted by the bureau in the documents, presumably from the Intercept promoting its report. One person responded, "Eyes peeled to the Intercept tonight."

      The same day, another FBI employee sent an email to coworkers asking, "any chance that massive email exchange has some background on the Greenwald matter we can pull from?"

      Someone replied stating, "Not sure it does. What background do you need?"

      It is unclear exactly to what the FBI employees were referring, but the email chain makes clear that the bureau was expecting the Intercept story to be published, and that it was preparing statements and talking points and fact sheets for FBI field offices and officials at headquarters.

      "Okay," wrote one intelligence official. "Will huddle with PAOs [public affairs officers] at NSC [White House National Security Council], DOJ [Department of Justice], NSA, FBI, and ODNI [Office of Director of National Intelligence]" to coordinate a "draft" statement for the group.

      While most of the records are so heavily redacted that they're indecipherable, there are a few noteworthy takeaways.

      NBC News told an FBI public affairs official it had essentially killed a web report that was going to be based on the Intercept story.

      "I just heard from NBC that they decided to hold the web piece they had written and are not planning on posting it. Hopefully a sign of the response we can expect from the majors," the email said, referring to mainstream news organizations.

      Greenwald told VICE News that he believes that email concerns discussions the FBI, NSA, and other government agencies had with reporters prior to the release of the Intercept story in which reporters at other news outlets were told that the Intercept's interpretation of a key surveillance document was wrong. The outlets, Greenwald said, were being directed away from covering the story. 

      "What had happened was the government had told not us, but other media organizations, including, I believe, NBC, that the document on which we were basing our story was one that we were misinterpreting," Greenwald said. "That it wasn't actually a list of surveillance targets, it was something else. [Government officials] were trying to convince other media outlets that we had our story wrong, in the hopes that they would prevent the story from getting coverage from other people. That was like a strategy they used to try and minimize its impact."

      A spokesperson for NBC News did not respond to VICE News'requests for comment. 

      Still, the Intercept's ongoing reporting on government surveillance was being discussed at the highest levels of the FBI. In an internal email sent a month after the Intercept story was published, an FBI Intelligence Branch employee wrote that a colleague at the bureau's counterterrorism division asked an "odd question."

      "He has been asked a few questions about a program called [redacted] to prepare a brief for the EAD [executive assistant director]," the FBI agent wrote in an August 18, 2014 email under the subject line "New articles coming from the intercept?" "He was told it is because of either a new Greenwald or new intercept article. Do you know if the intercept has informed us of any new releases?"

      Another internal email dated August 5, 2014 sent to FBI lawyers and public affairs officials by someone in the FBI's Office of General Counsel highlights another Intercept report and the website's publication of internal documents from the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) that revealed nearly half the people placed on a terrorist watchlist are not linked to terrorism.

      But there weren't any further discussions in the FBI documents about Mohammed Raghead.

      Greenwald told VICE News he searched the Snowden archive for additional references to Mohammed Raghead and other derogatory references to Muslims following the discovery that it was used on a training document, and did not find anything. 

      "Had we found other examples of 'Mohammed Raghead' we would have definitely published it," Greenwald said. 

      He said he does not believe it was "system wide" to use "Mohammed Raghead" "as the example of a bad person." But he noted that "In a very large percentage of the cases, they'll use random, almost caricatured Arab names as their example of people on whom they're spying."

      In the end, the FBI appears to have had a difficult time locating any documents mentioning Mohammed Raghead as well. Months after the Intercept report was published, an FBI employee forwarded an email, apparently in response to a question about the placeholder.

      "Here is the only record I have that contains the word Mohammed Raghead," the FBI employee wrote. It contained a copy of an ABC News report that was based on the original Intercept story.

      Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold

      Photo via Wikimedia Commons

      Topics: federal bureau of investigation, foia, primary sources, primary sources: the vice news foia blog, the intercept, glenn greenwald, freedom of information act, americas, united states, muslims, surveillance, crime & drugs, mohammed raghead

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