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NSA Approved Australia’s ASD Spying on US Law Firm Involved in Indonesia Trade Talks

In Archive, ASD, Australia, Economy, Encryption, Indonesia, NSA, NSA Files, Surveillance on February 17, 2014 at 6:11 AM



James Risen/Laura Poitras/NYTimes:

The list of those caught up in the global surveillance net cast by the National Security Agency and its overseas partners, from social media users to foreign heads of state, now includes another entry: American lawyers.

A top-secret document, obtained by the former N.S.A. contractor Edward J. Snowden, shows that an American law firm was monitored while representing a foreign government in trade disputes with the United States. The disclosure offers a rare glimpse of a specific instance in which Americans were ensnared by the eavesdroppers, and is of particular interest because lawyers in the United States with clients overseas have expressed growing concern that their confidential communications could be compromised by such surveillance.

The government of Indonesia had retained the law firm for help in trade talks, according to the February 2013 document. It reports that the N.S.A.’s Australian counterpart, the Australian Signals Directorate, notified the agency 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 N.S.A. is prohibited from targeting Americans, including businesses, law firms and other organizations based in the United States, for surveillance without warrants, and intelligence officials have repeatedly said the N.S.A. does not use the spy services of its partners in the so-called Five Eyes alliance — Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand — to skirt the law.

Several newly disclosed documents provide details of the cooperation between the United States and Australia, which share facilities and highly sensitive intelligence, including efforts to break encryption and collect phone call data in Indonesia. Both nations have trade and security interests in Indonesia.

The 2013 N.S.A. bulletin did not identify which trade case was being monitored by Australian intelligence, but Indonesia has been embroiled in several disputes with the United States in recent years. One involves clove cigarettes, an Indonesian export. The Indonesian government has protested to the World Trade Organization a United States ban on their sale, arguing that similar menthol cigarettes have not been subject to the same restrictions under American antismoking laws. The trade organization, ruling that the United States prohibition violated international trade laws, referred the case to arbitration to determine potential remedies for Indonesia.

Another dispute involved Indonesia’s exports of shrimp, which the United States claimed were being sold at below-market prices.

In addition to trade issues with the United States Indonesia was in a dispute with Australia, arguing that requirements for plain packaging for tobacco products under its antismoking rules were excessive.

Even though the Indonesian issues were relatively modest for the United States — about $40 million in annual trade is related to the clove cigarette dispute and $1 billion annually to shrimp — the Australian surveillance of talks underscores the extent to which the N.S.A. and its close partners engage in economic espionage.

Other documents obtained from Mr. Snowden reveal that the N.S.A. shares reports from its surveillance widely among civilian agencies. A 2004 N.S.A. document, for example, describes how the agency’s intelligence gathering was critical to the Agriculture Department in international trade negotiations.

“The U.S.D.A. is involved in trade operations to protect and secure a large segment of the U.S. economy,” that document states. Top agency officials “often rely on SIGINT” — short for the signals intelligence that the N.S.A. eavesdropping collects — “to support their negotiations.”

The Australians reported another instance to the N.S.A. — in addition to the one with the American law firm — in which their spying involved an American, according to the February 2013 document. They were conducting surveillance on a target who turned out to be an American working for the United States government in Afghanistan, the document said. It offered no details about what happened after the N.S.A. learned of the incident, and the agency declined to respond to questions about it.

The documents show that the N.S.A. and the Australians jointly run a large signals intelligence facility in Alice Springs, Australia, with half the personnel from the American agency. The N.S.A. and its Australian counterpart have also cooperated on efforts to defeat encryption. A 2003 memo describes how N.S.A. personnel sought to “mentor” the Australians while they tried to break the encryption used by the armed forces of nearby Papua New Guinea.

Most of the collaboration between the N.S.A. and the Australian eavesdropping service is focused on Asia, with China and Indonesia receiving special attention.

The Americans and the Australians secretly share broad access to the Indonesian telecommunications system, the documents show. The N.S.A. has given the Australians access to bulk call data from Indosat, an Indonesian telecommunications provider, according to a 2012 agency document. That includes data on Indonesian government officials in various ministries, the document states.

The Australians have obtained nearly 1.8 million encrypted master keys, which are used to protect private communications, from the Telkomsel mobile telephone network in Indonesia, and developed a way to decrypt almost all of them, according to a 2013 N.S.A. document.

UPDATE 02/21/2014 American Bar Association Asks NSA to Explain Surveillance Policies Re: Attorney-Client Privilege

  1. […] and stole nearly 1.8 million encryption keys used to protect communications, the New York Times reported in […]


  2. […] NSA Approved Australia’s ASD Spying on US Law Firm Involved in Indonesia Trade Talks […]


  3. […] NSA Approved Australia’s ASD Spying on US Law Firm Involved in Indonesia Trade Talks […]


  4. […] article in The New York Times alleges that the Australian Signals Directorate intercepted privileged communications between the government of Indonesia and an American law firm and then shared the information with […]


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