U.S. Law Firm Involved in Foreign Trade Talks Spied On by NSA Ally

Wednesday, February 19, 2014
(graphic: Australian Signals Directorate)

Even when it is not directly involved in a spying controversy, the National Security Agency (NSA) still finds itself at the center of the storm.


A classified document provided to The New York Times by whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that a U.S. law firm was monitored while representing the government of Indonesia in trade disputes with the United States.


The monitoring was performed by the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), which works closely with the NSA to share intelligence on global threats.


The document did not indicate which legal office was targeted, but the Times reported that the firm Mayer Brown in Chicago was advising the Indonesian government on trade issues at the time of the eavesdropping.


Australia’s intelligence officials notified the NSA about their spying on the talks, and offered to share the information with the Americans. They added that “information covered by attorney-client privilege may be included” in the intelligence gathering, according to the document.


The response from the NSA came from its liaison office in Canberra, Australia, which “provided clear guidance” to the Australian agency, according to one of its monthly bulletins. That report also noted that the ASD “has been able to continue to cover the talks, providing highly useful intelligence for interested US customers.”


The NSA declined a request by the Times to say whether those U.S. customers included trade officials, negotiators, or others involved with the Indonesia trade disputes.


Duane Layton, a Mayer Brown lawyer involved in the trade talks, told the Times: “I always wonder if someone is listening, because you would have to be an idiot not to wonder in this day and age. But I’ve never really thought I was being spied on.”


Federal law prohibits the NSA from targeting Americans without warrants, including lawyers based in the U.S.


NSA officials have repeatedly said that they don’t utilize the spy agencies of partners in the Five Eyes alliance — Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand — to get around the law.


But as the Times’ James Risen and Laura Poitras noted, the NSA “can intercept the communications of Americans if they are in contact with a foreign intelligence target abroad, such as Indonesian officials. The NSA 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.”


U.S. and Australian intelligence covertly share extensive access to the Indonesian telecommunications system, according to the Snowden documents. The NSA has provided ASD with access to bulk call data from Indosat, an Indonesian telecommunications company, which includes information on various government officials in the country.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Spying by N.S.A. Ally Entangled U.S. Law Firm (by James Risen and Laura Poitras, New York Times)

Does NSA Avoid U.S. Legal Restrictions by Hiring British Intelligence to Gather Information on Americans?  (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)

German Spy Agency Supplies NSA with Daily Trove of Surveillance Data (by Danny Biederman and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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