Snowden Leaked Documents Reveal NSA Monitoring of Global Law Firm

by Sabrina I. Pacifici on February 15, 2014

James Risen reported from Washington, and Laura Poitras from Berlin. Charlie Savage contributed reporting from Washington: “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.”

  • Follow up - ABA asks NSA how it handles attorney-client privileged information in intelligence work, Feb. 21, 2014 — The American Bar Association sent a letter to the National Security Agency on Feb. 20 expressing concerns over recent allegations of possible foreign government surveillance of American lawyers’ confidential communications with their overseas clients and the subsequent sharing of the privileged information with the NSA. The ABA also requested clarification on the agency’s current policies and practices designed to protect the attorney-client privileged information that it intercepts or receives and whether those directives were followed in connection with the alleged incident. An 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 the NSA. Citing that allegation, ABA President James R. Silkenat expressed concern that if confidential information was intercepted and shared with the NSA, it could be improperly utilized by the U.S. government or third parties. “The attorney-client privilege is a bedrock legal principle of our free society and is important in both the civil and criminal contexts,” Silkenat wrote. “It enables both individual and organizational clients to communicate with their lawyers in confidence, which is essential to preserving all clients’ fundamental rights to effective counsel.” The ABA further urged the NSA not to actively seek confidential communications between U.S. law firms and their clients. If confidential information is obtained by the NSA inadvertently or from a foreign intelligence service, Silkenat wrote that the NSA should respect attorney-client privilege and take all appropriate steps to ensure that any such information is not further disseminated to other agencies or third parties.  Silkenat’s letter to NSA Director Gen. Keith B. Alexander and NSA General Counsel Rajesh De is available here.”

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