Allies, aid groups, business elite in NSA dragnet

New York TimesDecember 20, 2013 

Secret documents reveal more than 1,000 targets of U.S. 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 Government Communications Headquarters, working closely with the National Security Agency, monitored the communications of senior EU 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 such as 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 former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden and shared by The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel.

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 its policy was not to comment on intelligence matters but that the agency “takes its obligations under the law very seriously.”

Listening to Israelis

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.

Olmert confirmed 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.

“This was an unimpressive target,” 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.

Barak, who declined to comment, has said publicly that he used to take it for granted that he was under surveillance.

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 Olmert’s office 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 a wave of cyberattacks on Iran’s major nuclear enrichment facility.

A year before the interception of Olmert’s office 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.

EU business interests

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 U.S. companies, including Microsoft and Intel, with heavy fines for hampering fair competition. The reports say that spies intercepted Almunia’s communications in 2008 and 2009.

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 such as travel reviews and ratings from other websites without permission. While pushing for a settlement with Google, 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 Almunia’s communications were requested by the NSA or British spies. Nor do the reports make clear whether he was a long-standing surveillance target or swept up as part of a fleeting operation.

Contacted by The New York Times, Almunia said he was “strongly upset” about the spying.

In a statement, the NSA denied that it had ever carried out espionage to benefit U.S. 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 policymakers with the information they need to make informed decisions that are in the best interest of our national security,” Vines said.

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

Broad range of targets

The surveillance reports show U.S. 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 U.S. spying since reports emerged that the agency listened to Chancellor 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 U.N. missions in Geneva are listed as targets, including the U.N. Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, and the U.N. 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-Qaida, and as suspected extremists or jihadists.

While few, if any, U.S. citizens appear to be named, the documents 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.

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