Did The NSA Help Spy On A U.S. Law Firm?

A New York Times piece suggests the NSA helped spy on a U.S. law firm, but what really happened?
Posted at 7:57 AM, Feb 16, 2014

Here's a piece from The New York Times that would definitely raise a lawyer's eyebrows:

First paragraph: American lawyers are now among "those caught up in the global surveillance net cast by the National Security Agency and its overseas partners."

To quickly summarize — The Times' James Risen and Laura Poitras had a look at documents from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Those documents show the NSA's counterpart in Australia had conducted surveillance on Indonesian government officials seeking help from a U.S. law firm on trade talks.

From the piece we learn:

- The Australian Signals Directorate offered to share info from its spying with the NSA.

- The Australians asked the NSA for legal guidance since information it would come across was covered by attorney-client privilege.

The piece prompted subsequent headlines like this: "US law firm representing Indonesian government caught in NSA spying web." (Via RT)

And this. (Via The Hill)

Which is all a little scary-sounding — with the underlying suggestion that just having trade and economic insight is enough for an American business to be spied on.

A tempting story line, especially considering how it fits into an already existing narrative about the NSA and Snowden-leaked documents. (Via euronews)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: "You can't have 100% security and also then have 100% privacy... We're gonna have to make some choices as a society." (Via The Guardian)

The narrative — that despite what the U.S. government says, spying isn't just for national security interests.

In fact — The New York Times piece pretty bluntly suggests its report "underscores the extent to which the N.S.A. and its close partners engage in economic espionage."

But The Washington Post's Orin Kerr pokes a few holes in the piece: Namely, that despite the fact we know the Australians sought legal advice — and got it — from the NSA, we don't know what that advice was. Nor do we know what actual intelligence ended up being shared. 

So he concludes, "It seems to me that  the story here isn’t 'NSA helped spy on U.S. lawyers.' Rather, the story here is more like 'Australian government obtained legal guidance from NSA General Counsel’s Office on what to do..."

Meanwhile the Australian government has denied any suggestion that it spies for commercial purposes. Australia, by the way, is part of the so-called "Five Eyes" alliance, which also includes the U.S., U.K., Canada and New Zealand. The alliance regularly exchanges intelligence.