Virtually no foreign government is off-limits for the National Security Agency, which has been authorized to intercept information “concerning” all but four countries, according to top-secret documents.
The United States has long had broad no-spying arrangements with those four countries — Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — in a group known collectively with the United States as the Five Eyes. But a classified 2010 legal certification and other documents indicate the NSA has been given a far more elastic authority than previously known, one that allows it to intercept through U.S. companies not just the communications of its overseas targets but any communications about its targets as well.
The certification — approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and included among a set of documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden — lists 193 countries that would be of valid interest for U.S. intelligence. The certification also permitted the agency to gather intelligence about entities including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The NSA is not necessarily targeting all the countries or organizations identified in the certification, the affidavits and an accompanying exhibit; it has only been given authority to do so. Still, the privacy implications are far-reaching, civil liberties advocates say, because of the wide spectrum of people who might be engaged in communication about foreign governments and entities and whose communications might be of interest to the United States.