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US law firm representing Indonesian government caught in NSA spying web

Published time: February 16, 2014 02:22
AFP Photo / Paul J. Richards

AFP Photo / Paul J. Richards

With help from the Australians, the NSA has been gathering private communications of US lawyers with their clients in the Indonesian government involved in a trade dispute with Washington, a secret document obtained by the New York Times reveals.

The document provided by the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden exposes NSA activity in monitoring an American law firm at a time when it was representing the Indonesian government during its trade talks with counterparts from the US.

Titled “SUSLOC (Special US Liaison Office Canberra) Facilitates Sensitive DSD Reporting on Trade Talks” the document did not specify which trade case was being monitored by Australian intelligence through the so-called Five Eyes network that includes, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

The Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) offered to share with the NSA the information about monitored communications between Indonesian government officials and the unnamed US law firm, according to the February 2013 document.

The intelligence report Australia offered to share could contain “information covered by attorney-client privilege,” the spying agency warned the NSA liaison office in Canberra. Upon receiving guidelines from NSA general counsel’s office, the Australian agency has been encouraged to continue their surveillance of the talks “providing highly useful intelligence for interested US customers.”

It remains unclear who those “interested customers” might be.

National Security Agency.(Reuters / NSA)

At that time the Indonesian government was involved in a number of trade disputes with Washington and the New York times reports that the only US law firm involved was Chicago-based Mayer Brown.

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

US intelligence officials have repeatedly claimed the NSA is not targeting American citizens and businesses without a warrant and not using its Five Eyes international network as a loophole.

But the new leak confirms that US firms providing services to foreign clients can never be sure they aren’t being spied on. Last year, the US States Supreme court dismissed such fears as “speculative theory” of “hypothetical future harm,” refusing to let Americans challenge a provision in a foreign intelligence law that lets the NSA conduct secret warrantless surveillance on any US citizen as long as they are suspected of conversing with any foreigner.

According to 2009 procedural guidelines for the NSA, when a US citizen becomes an intelligence target, the agency is required to adhere to rules to protect the target’s privacy, for instance removing the identity of the American or data that does not add to the intelligence probe before sharing it with other agencies.

Australians have been long cooperating with the NSA, focusing on the Asia region, mainly China and Indonesia. Last November is was revealed that they worked side by side on a large-scale joint surveillance operation on Indonesia during the 2007 UN climate change conference in Bali.

The new documents reveal that Australia obtained almost 2 million encrypted master keys from the Indinesian Telkomsel mobile network, and colleagues from NSA have been helping ASD decrypt them.

The Australian Defense Force public affairs office maintains that all intelligence is collected under strict legal guidelines and is vital for supporting national interests, echoing the US officials’ narrative. Meanwhile, the NSA when reached by the New York times about the new leaks “declined to answer questions.”