The US government should thoroughly explain why it placed five American Muslim leaders, including the head of a prominent Muslim civil liberties group, under electronic surveillance. The information was included in an investigation made public on July 9, 2014.

The investigation by the media organization First Look, based on documents provided by Edward Snowden, reveals that Nihad Awad, co-founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), was placed under surveillance by the government in July 2006. The surveillance, including collection of all his electronic communications, continued until February 2008. Any alleged basis for Awad’s surveillance – and that of the other four American Muslims whose surveillance was revealed by First Look – remains secret.

“American Muslims have been under surveillance by their own government for years, often based on nothing more than a misguided belief that terrorists might be hiding in their midst,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “In light of that history, and the chilling effect these revelations will have on other human rights and civil liberties groups, the government has a heavy burden to show that this secret electronic surveillance was both lawful and necessary.”

Human Rights Watch noted that the US law enforcement agencies have long engaged in unjustified targeting of American Muslim communities for surveillance and investigation, even as they have stressed the importance of partnering with those same communities in counterterrorism efforts. The documents made public on July 9 may heighten fear among other organizations, as well as the broader American Muslim population, that they may be improperly targeted.

Human Rights Watch, along with 44 other organizations, also sent a letter to President Barack Obama, calling for a full public accounting of the practices described in today’s report.