Bar Association protests NSA spying

The country’s top lawyers’ trade group is raising a formal complaint about the U.S. government’s support for spying on confidential legal communications.

The American Bar Association (ABA) last week sent a letter to leaders at the National Security Agency (NSA) expressing concern about reports that the agency’s Australian counterpart had spied on a U.S. law firm working for Indonesia. The agency allegedly offered to share details with the NSA, including “information covered by attorney-client privilege.”

“The attorney-client privilege is a bedrock legal principle of our free society and is important in both the civil and criminal contexts,” the group’s president, James Silkenat, wrote in the letter. “The ABA has consistently fought to preserve the attorney-client privilege and opposes government policies, practices and procedures that erode the privilege.”

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“The interception and sharing of attorney-client privileged communications by government agencies — or any third party — raises concerns, including chilling the full and frank discussion between lawyer and client that is essential for effective legal representation,” he added.

Documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden showed that the Australian government kept tabs on discussions between Indonesian officials and an American law firm which was not named, but was said to be providing support on trade issues.

Traditional legal protections for attorney-client communication do not extend to communications with foreign governments.

The lawyers’ organization asked the NSA to “clarify and explain NSA’s current policies and practices” for protecting attorney-client confidentiality and asked whether or not those policies were followed in the Indonesian case.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties group, cheered the ABA’s letter.

“Just as attorneys must zealously fight for their clients, the profession must zealously fight against surveillance that would undermine the ability to represent clients, and must see this most recent revelation for what it is — a step away from the constitutionally prescribed system of justice attorneys are sworn to uphold,” Nadia Kayyali, an activist with the group, wrote in a blog post