The US National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation spied on five prominent Muslim-American activists, including an Indian-origin attorney, according to the leaked documents which showed use of objectionable religious slurs against these individuals.
Based on the documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, online news site The Intercept today said the NSA and FBI have covertly monitored emails of prominent Muslim-Americans under secretive procedures intended to target terrorists and foreign spies.
The report said the surveillance was authorised by a secret intelligence court under procedures intended to locate spies and terrorist suspects.
The Intercept said it identified at least five persons, all American citizens, based on their email addresses.
These include Indian-origin attorney Asim Ghafoor, who has represented clients in terrorism-related cases.
"I believe that they tapped me because my name is Asim Abdur Rahman Ghafoor, my parents are from India, I travelled to Saudi Arabia as a young man, and I do the pilgrimage," Ghafoor was quoted as saying by The Intercept.
"Yes, absolutely I believe that had something to do with it," he added.
Others being Faisal Gill, a longtime Republican Party operative and one-time candidate for public office who held a top-secret security clearance and served in the Department of Homeland Security under President George W Bush and Hooshang Amirahmadi, an Iranian-American professor of international relations at Rutgers University.
Others were Agha Saeed, a former political science professor at California State University who champions Muslim civil liberties and Palestinian rights and Nihad Awad, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the largest Muslim civil rights group in the US.
Commenting on the report, the White House said the use of racial or ethnic stereotypes, slurs, or other similar language by employees is both unacceptable and inconsistent with the country's core values.
"The Administration takes all such allegations extremely seriously, and upon learning of this matter the White House immediately requested that the Director of National Intelligence undertake an assessment of Intelligence Community policies, training standards or directives that promote diversity and tolerance, and as necessary, make any recommendations changes or additional reforms," said Caitlin Hayden, Spokesperson National Security Council.
Both the Department of Justice and Director of National Intelligence immediately denied that they conducted electronic surveillance of political, religious or activist figures solely because they disagree with public policies or criticize the government, or for exercising constitutional rights.
"It's entirely false that US intelligence agencies conduct electronic surveillance of political, religious or activist figures solely because they disagree with public policies or criticize the government, or for exercising constitutional rights," the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Justice said in a joint statement.
Unlike some other nations, the US does not monitor anyone's communications in order to suppress criticism or to put people at a disadvantage based on their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation or religion, the statement said.
"Our intelligence agencies help protect America by collecting communications when they have a legitimate foreign intelligence or counterintelligence purpose. With limited exceptions (for example, in an emergency), our intelligence agencies must have a court order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to target any US citizen or lawful permanent resident for electronic surveillance," it said.
"These court orders are issued by an independent federal judge only if probable cause, based on specific facts, are established that the person is an agent of a foreign power, a terrorist, a spy, or someone who takes orders from a foreign power," it said.
"No US person can be the subject of surveillance based solely on First Amendment activities, such as staging public rallies, organizing campaigns, writing critical essays, or expressing personal beliefs. On the other hand, a person who the court finds is an agent of a foreign power under this rigorous standard is not exempted just because of his or her occupation," the statement added.