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FILE - In this Thursday, June 6, 2013, file photo, a sign stands outside the National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md. The National Security Agency tracks the locations of nearly 5 billion cellphones every day overseas, including those belonging to Americans abroad, The Washington Post reported Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013. Such data means the NSA can track the movements of almost any cellphone around the world, and map the relationships of the cellphone user. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

• Associated Press,

U.S., Brits spied on 1,000 foreign targets, newly leaked NSA documents show

  • Article by: James glanz and andrew w. lehren New York Times
  • December 20, 2013 - 11:55 PM

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 E.U. 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.

President Obama said Friday that mass collection of private data might be unnecessary and said he will make a “definitive statement” about NSA policies in January.

In addition to Israel, some targets involved 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 the former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and shared by the New York Times, the Guardian and Der Spiegel.

Unclear what was gleaned

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 e-mails, 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 condemned the surveillance as unjustified and improper. “This is not the type of behavior that we expect from strategic partners,” said Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, on the latest revelations.

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

The reports show that spies monitored the e-mail traffic of several Israeli officials, including one target identified as “Israeli prime minister,” followed by an e-mail address.

The prime minister at the time of the interception, in January 2009, was Ehud Olmert. The following month, spies intercepted the e-mail traffic of the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, according to another report. Two Israeli embassies also are on the lists.

Doubts secrets were found

Olmert confirmed Friday that the e-mail 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. “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.

Also appearing on the surveillance lists is Joaquin Almunia, vice president of the European Commission, which has oversight of antitrust issues in Europe. Almunia is involved in a three-year standoff with Google over how the company runs its search engine.

Almunia said he is “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.

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.

Consternation in Germany

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 other German officials.

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.

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.”

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

© 2014 Star Tribune