US law firm ensnared in spying by NSA ally

A U.S. law firm advising Indonesia's government on trade issues was spied on by a foreign government, according to a new top secret document released by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden.

The spying was done by Australia, which shared the information with the National Security Agency, according to the document, which was obtained by The New York Times

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It's not clear whether the information was then given to U.S. trade officials to provide some kind of leverage. But the incident highlights the long reach of the NSA and foreign intelligence agencies, and raises questions about how its information is being used.

According to the 2013 document, the National Security Agency's counterpart in Australia notified the U.S. spy agency in the 2013 document that it was keeping tabs on discussions between Indonesian officials and the law firm. The Australian agency offered to share the details with the NSA, including “information covered by attorney-client privilege.”

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The monthly bulletin from the Australian Signals Director’s Canberra office said it “has been able to continue to cover the talks, providing highly useful intelligence for interested US customers.” It did not go into details about those customers, beyond the NSA.

The U.S. law firm was not identified, but the Times reported that the Chicago-based firm Mayer Brown was advising Indonesia on trade issues at the time.

The bulletin also did not identify which trade case the Australian agency was monitoring. Indonesia in recent years has been in a series of confrontations with the U.S. over cigarettes, shrimp and other issues.

Attorney-client privileges protected by U.S. law do not extend to the NSA’s snooping.

Australian and U.S. intelligence agencies share facilities and sensitive details. Much of the collaboration between the two agencies focuses on Asia, especially China and Indonesia.

Other documents obtained by the Times show that information the NSA obtains has helped the U.S. Department of Agriculture “to support their negotiations” with other nations. 

Civil liberties advocates were quick to jump on the new disclosure as the latest sign of global surveillance programs run amuck.

“This story confirms our fear that the NSA's surveillance rules give short shrift to the privacy of communications between lawyers and their clients, and it’s another example of the NSA's troubling ‘mission creep’ beyond national security,” said Alex Abdo, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement sent to The Hill.

“Attorney-client communications are sacred in our legal tradition and should not be wiretapped except in extraordinary circumstances. This is yet another way in which surveillance capabilities have outpaced legal protections and yet another reason why congressional reform is necessary.”

This story was posted at 2:43 p.m. and updated at 4:03 p.m.