NSA, British spy agency targeted many foreign interests, including allies, aid agencies

President Obama said during his end-of-the-year news conference Friday that the NSA surveillance program would likely see changes in the year ahead. (The Associated Press)
December 20, 2013

British and U.S. spy agencies targeted the office of an Israeli prime minister, the heads of international aid organizations and a European Union official who oversees antitrust issues involving U.S. technology firms, according to secret documents.

The targets were among more than 1,000 listed in documents provided to journalists by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Although the NSA’s targeting of foreign heads of state has been reported, the documents show a broad spectrum of interests by the NSA and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), in more than 60 countries, according to reports in the Guardian, the New York Times and der Spiegel posted online Friday.

The disclosures come on the heels of a 300-page report by a surveillance review panel appointed by President Obama, which recommended that decisions on whether to spy on foreign leaders take into account the potential for diplomatic and economic fallout if the operations are revealed, and that the White House sign off on sensitive targets.

Revelations this year that the NSA had targeted the cellphone calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel caused a stir, and Obama quickly assured Merkel that her calls were no longer being monitored.

Conflicting rulings

NSA

On Dec. 16, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon ruled that a program that collects telephone metadata likely violates the Fourth Amendment. Read his ruling.




NSA

On Dec. 27, U.S. District Judge William J. Pauley said the bulk collection of Americans' telephone records is legal. Read his ruling.

The target lists appear in a set of GCHQ reports dated from 2008 to 2011, according to the Times. They sometimes identify which agency requested the monitoring, but more often do not.

Some targets were obvious, such as the Taliban and “various entities in Beijing.” Others were in France and Germany, allied countries in which tensions are already high over revelations of NSA spying.

The documents show that the agencies intercepted e-mails of several Israeli officials, including one target identified as “Israeli prime minister,” the Times reported. At the time, January 2009, the prime minister was Ehud Olmert. Two Israeli embassies were also listed.

Israel is considered the United States’ closest ally in the Middle East, but it is no secret that they routinely spy on each other. Nonetheless, the disclosure could add tensions to a relationship already strained over differences in policy toward Iran.

Also spied on was a European Commission official who oversees competition policy and whose office has undertaken a probe of Google for alleged prioritization of search-engine results, among other issues. The monitoring took place in 2008 and 2009, the reports said.

Aid organizations also were targeted, the documents said. They included the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Médecins du Monde, an aid group that provides medical assistance in conflict zones.

NSA spokeswoman Vanee Vines said in a statement: “As we have previously said, 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.”

But she said that some economic espionage was necessary for the intelligence community “to understand economic systems and policies, and monitor anomalous economic activities.” That information, she said, is “critical” for policymakers “to make informed decisions that are in the best interest of our national security.”

The White House is reviewing the efficacy and appropriateness of U.S. surveillance activities, including how the government coordinates with its closest allies. Results of its review will be announced in January.

Ellen Nakashima is a national security reporter for The Washington Post. She focuses on issues relating to intelligence, technology and civil liberties.
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