NSA, Aussie counterpart, spied on US law firm working with Indonesia

Documents leaked by Edward Snowden reveal the NSA and the Australian Signals Directorate worked together to conduct surveillance of the Indonesian government and a Chicago-based law firm representing them in trade disputes with the US. 

Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras/The Guardian/AP
Edward Snowden in Hong Kong June 9, 2013. New documents leaked by Snowden show the National Security Agency spied on a Chicago-based law firm the Indonesian government had retained for help in trade talks with the US.

The National Security Agency was involved in the surveillance of an American law firm while it represented a foreign government in trade disputes with the United States, The New York Times reported in a story based on a top-secret document obtained by former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden.

The February 2013 document shows that the Indonesian government had retained the law firm for help in trade talks, the Times reported in a story posted on its website Saturday. The law firm was not identified in the document, but the Chicago-based firm Mayer Brown was advising the Indonesian government on trade issues at the time, according to the newspaper.

The document itself is a monthly bulletin from an NSA liaison office in Canberra, the capital of Australia. The NSA's Australian counterpart, the Australian Signals Directorate, had notified the NSA that it was conducting surveillance of the talks, including communications between Indonesian officials and the American law firm, and offered to share the information, the Times reported.

Liaison officials asked the NSA general counsel's office, on behalf of the Australians, for guidance about the spying. The bulletin notes only that the counsel's office "provided clear guidance" and that the Australian eavesdropping agency "has been able to continue to cover the talks, providing highly useful intelligence for interested U.S. customers," according to the Times story.

The NSA and the Australian government declined to answer questions about the surveillance, the Times reported. In statements to the newspaper and The Associated Press, the NSA said it "does not ask its foreign partners to undertake any intelligence activity that the U.S. government would be legally prohibited from undertaking itself."

Officials have said Snowden took 1.7 million documents with him when he fled the U.S. last year and has shared some of them with journalists. He has been granted temporary asylum in Russia and has been charged with theft and espionage in the U.S.

Duane Layton, a Mayer Brown lawyer involved in the trade talks, told the Times that he did not have any evidence that he or his firm had been under scrutiny by Australian or U.S. intelligence agencies.

"I always wonder if someone is listening, because you would have to be an idiot not to wonder in this day and age," he said in an interview with the newspaper. "But I've never really thought I was being spied on."

The NSA is prohibited from targeting Americans, including businesses, law firms and other organizations based in the United States, for surveillance without warrants, the Times reported. Intelligence officials have repeatedly said the NSA does not use the spy services of its partners in an alliance of intelligence operations — Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand — to skirt the law.

The Times reported that the NSA can intercept the communications of Americans if they are in contact with a foreign intelligence target abroad, such as Indonesian officials. The U.S. agency is then required to follow so-called minimization rules to protect their privacy, such as deleting the identity of Americans or information that is not deemed necessary to understand or assess the foreign intelligence, before sharing it with other agencies, the paper reported.

Most attorney-client conversations do not get special protections under American law from NSA eavesdropping, according to the newspaper.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.