A top-secret document, obtained by former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden, shows that a U.S. 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 U.S. lawyers 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 NSA’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 U.S. law firm, and offered to share the information.
The Australians told officials at an NSA liaison office in Canberra, Australia, that “information covered by attorney-client privilege may be included” in the intelligence gathering, according to the document, a monthly bulletin from the Canberra office.
The law firm was not identified, but Mayer Brown, a Chicago-based firm with a global practice, was then advising the Indonesian government on trade issues.
On behalf of the Australians, the liaison officials asked the NSA general counsel’s office for guidance about the spying. The bulletin notes only that the counsel’s office “provided clear guidance” and that the Australian eavesdropping agency “has been able to continue to cover the talks, providing highly useful intelligence for interested US customers.”
The NSA declined to answer questions about the reported surveillance, including whether information involving the U.S. law firm was shared with U.S. trade officials or negotiators.