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U.S. lawyers caught in NSA surveillance web: Snowden

A protester stands behind a banner featuring the face of former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden during the Stop Watching Us Rally protesting surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency, on Oct. 26, 2013, in front of Union Station.
Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images

In addition to foreign heads of state, social media users and tens of millions of Americans, the surveillance web cast by the National Security Agency and its overseas partners now includes another group – U.S. lawyers.

That’s according to a top-secret document that was obtained by former NSA contractor Edward J. Snowden, The New York Times reported Sunday.

The document indicates that at least one American law firm was being monitored while it represented a foreign government involved in trade disputes with the United States. And it offers what insiders say is a very rare look of a specific instance in which American citizens were caught up in the intelligence community’s web of surveillance.

The Times reported that the incident is of genuine interest to the U.S. legal community; lawyers in the U.S. have expressed rising concern that confidential communications with clients might have been compromised by the spy agency.

Indonesia’s government had retained an American firm to help in trade talks with the U.S., according to the Snowden document, which was dated February 2013. It said the NSA’s Australian counterpart, the Australian Signals Directorate, informed the NSA it was monitoring the discussions – talks between Indonesian government officials and the American firm, and offered to share the information with the U.S. spy agency.

The law firm was not identified in the document Snowden provided, but at the time, Chicago firm Mayer Brown was advising the Indonesian government on trade talks.

Duane Layton, a Mayer Brown lawyer involved in the trade talks, told the Times he did not have any evidence suggesting he or his firm had been placed under surveillance by any spy agency, Australian or otherwise.

“I always wonder if someone is listening, because you would have to be an idiot not to wonder in this day and age,” he said. “But I’ve never really thought I was being spied on.”

Most attorney-client conversations are not subject to special consideration by the NSA in the U.S. They can be monitored by the spy agency, the Times said.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled in favor of the government involving a legal challenge to a 2008 law permitting warrantless wiretapping that had been brought, in part, by U.S. attorneys with foreign clients they suspected were targets of NSA monitoring.

In the 1950s, the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain and New Zealand formed an intelligence alliance called "Five Eyes," in which the spy agencies of each member government collect and share signals intelligence with the others. Each nation is responsible for monitoring certain parts of the world; Australia's area of responsibility is Indonesia, southern China and the nations of what used to be called Indochina - Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

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