GO
Loading...

NSA dragnet included allies, aid groups and business elite

Edward Snowden
Getty Images
Edward Snowden

Secret documents reveal more than 1,000 targets of American and British surveillance in recent years, including the office of an Israeli prime minister, heads of international aid organizations, foreign energy companies and a European Union official involved in antitrust battles with American technology businesses.

While the names of some political and diplomatic leaders have previously emerged as targets, the newly disclosed intelligence documents provide a much fuller portrait of the spies' sweeping interests in more than 60 countries.

Britain's General Communications Headquarters, working closely with the National Security Agency, monitored the communications of senior European Union officials, foreign leaders including African heads of state and sometimes their family members, directors of United Nations and other relief programs, and officials overseeing oil and finance ministries, according to the documents.

In addition to Israel, some targets involve close allies like France and Germany, where tensions have already erupted over recent revelations about spying by the NSA.

Details of the surveillance are described in documents from the NSA. and Britain's eavesdropping agency, known as GCHQ, dating from 2008 to 2011. The target lists appear in a set of GCHQ reports that sometimes identify which agency requested the surveillance, but more often do not. The documents were leaked by the former NSA. contractor Edward J. Snowden and shared by The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel.

(Read more: NSA advisory panel: More spying, more 'transparency')

The reports are spare, technical bulletins produced as the spies, typically working out of British intelligence sites, systematically tapped one international communications link after another, focusing especially on satellite transmissions. The value of each link is gauged, in part, by the number of surveillance targets found to be using it for emails, text messages or phone calls. More than 1,000 targets, which also include suspected terrorists or militants, are in the reports.

It is unclear what the eavesdroppers gleaned. The documents include a few fragmentary transcripts of conversations and messages, but otherwise contain only hints that further information was available elsewhere, possibly in a larger database.

Some of the surveillance relates to issues examined by an advisory panel in Washington, which on Wednesday recommended stricter limits on the NSA., including restrictions on spying on foreign leaders, particularly allies. In a response to questions by The Times, the NSA. said that it was reviewing how it coordinates with allies on spying. A GCHQ spokesman said that its policy was not to comment on intelligence matters, but that the agency "takes its obligations under the law very seriously."

The reports show that spies monitored the email traffic of several Israeli officials, including one target identified as "Israeli prime minister," followed by an email address. The prime minister at the time of the interception, in January 2009, was Ehud Olmert. The following month, spies intercepted the email traffic of the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, according to another report. Two Israeli embassies also appear on the target lists.

Mr. Olmert confirmed on Friday that the email address was used for correspondence with his office, which he said staff members often handled. He added that it was unlikely that any secrets could have been compromised.

More from the New York Times:
Judge questions legality of NSA phone records
Obama is urged to sharply curb NSA data mining
NSA report outlined goals for more power
Ire in Canada over report NSA spied from Ottowa

"This was an unimpressive target," Mr. Olmert said. He noted, for example, that his most sensitive discussions with President George W. Bush took place in private. "I would be surprised if there was any attempt by American intelligence in Israel to listen to the prime minister's lines," he said.

Still, despite the close ties between the United States and Israel, the record of mutual spying is long: Israeli spies, including Jonathan Jay Pollard, who was sentenced in 1987 to life in prison for passing intelligence information to Israel, have often operated in the United States, and the United States has often turned the capabilities of the NSA. against Israel.

The interception of Mr. Olmert's email occurred while he was dealing with fallout from Israel's military response to rocket attacks from Gaza, but also at a particularly tense time in relations with the United States. The two countries were simultaneously at odds on Israeli preparations to attack Iran's nuclear program and cooperating on the design and launching of a wave of cyberattacks on Iran's major nuclear enrichment facility.

A year before the interception of Mr. Olmert's email, the documents listed another target, the Institute of Physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an internationally recognized center for research in atomic and nuclear physics.

Also appearing on the surveillance lists is Joaquín Almunia, vice president of the European Commission, which, among other powers, has oversight of antitrust issues in Europe. The commission has broad authority over local and foreign companies, and has punished a number of American companies, including Microsoft and Intel, with heavy fines for hampering fair competition. The reports say that spies intercepted Mr. Almunia's communications in 2008 and 2009.

(Read more: After 'cataclysmic' Snowden affair, NSA faces winds of change)

Mr. Almunia, a Spaniard, assumed direct authority over the commission's antitrust office in 2010. He has been involved in a three-year standoff with Google over how the company runs its search engine. Competitors of the online giant had complained that it was prioritizing its own search results and using content like travel reviews and ratings from other websites without permission. While pushing for a settlement with Google, Mr. Almunia has warned that the company could face large fines if it does not cooperate.

The surveillance reports do not specify whether the interceptions of Mr. Almunia's communications were requested by the NSA. or British spies. Nor do the reports make clear whether he was a longstanding surveillance target or swept up as part of a fleeting operation. Contacted by The New York Times, Mr. Almunia said he was "strongly upset" about the spying.

In a statement, the NSA. denied that it had ever carried out espionage to benefit American businesses.

"We do not use our foreign intelligence capabilities to steal the trade secrets of foreign companies on behalf of — or give intelligence we collect to — U.S. companies to enhance their international competitiveness or increase their bottom line," said Vanee Vines, an NSA. spokeswoman.

But she added that some economic spying was justified by national security needs. "The intelligence community's efforts to understand economic systems and policies, and monitor anomalous economic activities, are critical to providing policy makers with the information they need to make informed decisions that are in the best interest of our national security," Ms. Vines said.

At the request of the GCHQ, The Times agreed to withhold some details from the documents because of security concerns.

The surveillance reports show American and British spies' deep appetite for information. The French companies Total, the oil and gas giant, and Thales, an electronics, logistics and transportation outfit, appear as targets, as do a French ambassador, an "Estonian Skype security team" and the German Embassy in Rwanda.

Germany is especially sensitive about American spying since reports emerged that the agency listened to Prime Minister Angela Merkel's cellphone calls. Negotiations for a proposed agreement between Germany and the United States on spying rules have recently stalled for several reasons, including the refusal of the United States to guarantee that it would never spy on German officials other than the prime minister.

Multiple United Nations missions in Geneva are listed as targets, including the United Nations Children's Fund, or Unicef, and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. So is Médecins du Monde, a medical relief organization that goes into war-ravaged areas. Leigh Daynes, an executive director of the organization in Britain, responded to news about the surveillance by saying: "There is absolutely no reason for our operations to be secretly monitored."

More obvious intelligence targets are also listed, though in smaller numbers, including people identified as "Israeli grey arms dealer," "Taleban ministry of refugee affairs" and "various entities in Beijing." Some of those included are described as possible members of Al Qaeda, and as suspected extremists or jihadists.

While few if any American citizens appear to be named in the documents, they make clear that some of the intercepted communications either began or ended in the United States and that NSA. facilities carried out interceptions around the world in collaboration with their British partners. Some of the interceptions appear to have been made at the Sugar Grove, Va., listening post run by the NSA. and code-named Timberline, and some are explicitly tied to NSA. target lists in the reports.

Many of the reports, written by British teams specializing in Sigint, shorthand for "signals intelligence," are called "Bude Sigint Development Reports," referring to a British spy campus on the Cornwall coast. The reports often reveal which countries were the endpoints for the intercepted communications, and information on which satellite was carrying the traffic.

(Read more: Judge to NSA: No, you cannot collect bulk phone records)

Strengthening the likelihood that full transcripts were taken during the intercepts is the case of Mohamed Ibn Chambas, an official of the Economic Community of West African States, known as Ecowas, a regional initiative of 15 countries that promotes economic and industrial activity. Whether intentionally or through some oversight, when Mr. Chambas's communications were intercepted in August 2009, dozens of his complete text messages were copied into one of the reports.

Referred to in the transcripts as "Dr. Chambers," he seems to have been monitored during an especially humdrum day or two of travel. "Am glad yr day was satisfying," Mr. Chambas texted one acquaintance. "I spent my whole day travelling... Had to go from Abidjan to Accra to catch a flt to Monrovia... The usual saga of intra afr."

Later he recommended a book, "A Colonial History of Northern Ghana," to the same person. "Interesting and informative," Mr. Chambas texted. The high point of his day was receiving an award in Liberia, but soon he was busy working out logistics for future appointments.

"Where is the conference pl? Didnt get the invt," he texted another contact. He discussed further details before adding, perhaps wistfully, given his grinding travel schedule: "Have a restful Sunday."

Katrin Bennhold contributed reporting from London, David E. Sanger from Washington and Ethan Bronner from New York.

Contact Politics

  • CNBC NEWSLETTERS

    Get the best of CNBC in your inbox

    › Learn More