Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Worker suing intelligence agency claims anti-Muslim bias

Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 11/01/2011
WP
By Ed O'Keefe

A Northern Virginia man is filing a discrimination lawsuit against one of the nation’s most secretive intelligence agencies, claiming it revoked his security clearance because his wife attended an Islamic school and works for a Muslim nonprofit group.
Eye Opener

Mahmoud M. Hegab, hired in 2010 as a budget analyst for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, sued in U.S. District Court in Alexandria last month and asked the agency to reverse its decision to revoke his clearance and place him on unpaid leave.

In court papers, Hegab, who lives in Alexandria, said he joined the agency in January 2010 and informed officials during his orientation that he had married his wife, Bushra Nusairat, between the time of his security clearance investigation and the date he reported to work.

The NGA supplies satellite imagery to the military and requires its 16,000 workers to obtain a top secret security clearance as a condition of employment. But the agency revoked Hegab’s clearance last November, citing concerns with Nusairat’s background; he was placed on unpaid leave in January.

Nusairat is a program associate with Islamic Relief USA, a nonprofit that partners with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department and other global aid groups to provide food aid and public health and educational programs in poor or disaster-prone regions of the world.

Hegab’s attorney, Sheldon Cohen, argued in court papers that the decision to revoke his clearance “was based solely” on Nusairat’s “religion, Islam, her constitutionally protected speech, and her association with, and employment by, an Islamic faith-based organization.”

The couple declined to comment. But Cohen, an Arlington attorney who has represented hundreds of federal employees in security clearance disputes, said NGA officials closely probed Nusairat’s background once they learned of Hegab’s marriage.

Cohen described Islamic Relief USA as a “noncontroversial organization,” and said he did not know of other cases where someone lost his clearance because his wife or a close relative worked for such a group.

A Fairfax native, Nusairat graduated in 2005 from the Islamic Saudi Academy, a Saudi-backed school that came under close scrutiny for using textbooks that promoted violence and religious intolerance. The school’s 1999 valedictorian also was convicted of plotting with al-Qaeda to kill George W. Bush.

Nusairat then attended George Mason University, where she studied international diplomacy and Islamic studies and led the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine.

Court papers also said that during the course of its investigation, the NGA discovered a photo believed to be of Nusairat attending a 2003 anti-Iraq war protest in Washington — when she was 16 years old.

As Hegab appealed the NGA’s decision in a series of written responses, court documents said he told the agency that his wife had been born and raised in Virginia, attended the Islamic Saudi Academy because her parents believed the school provided an education on par with other ethnic and religious-affiliated schools in the Washington area, and attended the anti-war rally along with thousands of other Americans, including military veterans and lawmakers.

In March, the NGA told Hegab that he had mitigated the agency’s concerns regarding his wife’s educational background, but the agency maintained its concerns with Nusairat’s “current affiliation with one or more organizations which consist of groups who are organized largely around their non-United States origin.”

When Cohen asked the agency for further details, officials did not deny they were expressing concerns with Islamic Relief USA, he said.

Founded in 1993, Islamic Relief USA maintains offices in four states and has earned top accreditations and awards from charity auditors. Most recently, it worked with the Agriculture Department on a summer feeding program for underprivileged children and provided aid to victims of spring tornadoes in Alabama.

Hebah Reed, a charity spokeswoman, confirmed Nusairat’s employment but could not comment further on the case.

“We have not received any complaints from any of our organization’s employees about discrimination when it comes to obtaining security clearances,” Reed said in an e-mail. “In fact, because of the nature of our work, we do work closely with many federal and local agencies on a regular basis and anti-Muslim discrimination has not been a concern.”

Lawyers said the Hebag case was the first they knew of where clearance was revoked because of a spouse’s ties to Islamic organizations. But federal agencies have a well-documented history of revoking clearances because of an employee’s family or marital ties.

During the Cold War, intelligence agencies regularly denied clearances to individuals whose spouses were involved with communist or so-called fellow traveler organizations. People with relatives in or from Russia or other Warsaw Pact countries also were denied clearances.

More recently, agencies have rejected applicants and employees because they have family living in the Middle East or Afghanistan, said Mark F. Riley, an Annapolis attorney who also handles security clearance cases. Riley recalled a client who dropped legal challenges against his federal employer because he needed to travel to a Middle Eastern country to bail out an imprisoned brother.

An NGA spokesman referred questions to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alexandria, which also declined to comment. The Justice Department must respond to the suit by Dec. 6.

Cohen expects the government to seek a dismissal of the case. If that happens, “we’ll go on from there,” he said, “but we intend to fight.”

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