WASHINGTON – If the National Security Agency monitored phone conversations between a New Zealand journalist and his Afghan sources, as reported this weekend, it was more likely to have been done under standard military intelligence monitoring of enemy communications in war zones, intelligence officials and experts said Monday.
The Obama administration brushed off new allegations of NSA surveillance overreach, this time focusing on freelance reporter Jon Stephenson, who was in Kabul, Afghanistan, working for American news service McClatchy and other media outlets when his phone records were reportedly seized.
It was the latest revelation, if greeted with less outrage, in the ongoing debate over government snooping since NSA leaker Edward Snowden in June revealed two top secret U.S. programs that monitor millions of Americans' telephone and Internet communications each day.
It's not clear what actually happened. The Sunday Star-Times reported that the New Zealand military conspired with U.S. spy agencies to monitor a Stephenson's communications with sources in Afghanistan. New Zealand officials denied the new allegations and U.S. intelligence authorities and the White House declined immediate comment Monday.
But experts and former intelligence officials said if Stephenson's phone records were collected, they would have been gathered in a military intelligence sweep that is shared among allies — and has for years monitored most communications in war zones, where there is little expectation of privacy in the hunt for enemy combatants and suspected terrorists.
New Zealand withdrew its small contingent of roughly 150 troops from Afghanistan earlier this year. But the country's Government Communications Security Bureau, which is New Zealand's NSA equivalent, would have been included in an allied intelligence gathering and reporting system in Afghanistan, said Canadian intelligence expert Wesley Wark.
Wark said the New Zealand security bureau also would have been able to access a secret system once code-named "Stoneghost," which allows it to share and draw from intelligence reports compiled from four other counties — the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia. Stoneghost was one portal through which the so-called Five Eyes allies, the U.S., U.K, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, shared data.
"It is entirely possible that New Zealand intelligence ran its own surveillance operation against Stephenson on the basis of access to a common allied intelligence pool in Afghanistan without necessarily requiring any direct U.S. input or involvement," said Wark, a national security professor at University of Ottawa.
He added: "It would not have been beyond the means of a small New Zealand contingent to do this on their own."
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said Monday it's possible that reporters could get caught in surveillance nets when the U.S. spies on enemy combatants. But generally, Five Eyes nations do not spy on each other's citizens and residents.
The NSA would not spy on citizens of another Five Eyes ally, especially if it were to circumvent that ally's own espionage laws, said former Michigan congressman and House intelligence committee chairman Pete Hoekstra.
What's picked up in war zones is considered fair game, however, and such surveillance has been a priority in Afghanistan as American troops prepare to withdraw in 2014. NATO and U.S. officials depend on the intelligence systems to detect and disrupt al-Qaida and the Taliban plots against the Afghan government and foreign forces.
American troops who specialize in intelligence gathering routinely tap directly into local cellphone company servers, or conduct technical surveillance though a number of electronic listening devices that are placed on jets, drones, ships and satellites, according to a current U.S. military official and a former one. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the classified surveillance program.
Each branch of the U.S. military has its own signals intelligence unit, including Task Force Odin, an Army aviation battalion created in Iraq to spot bomb makers, planters and plotters. The Odin unit's skills and some of its personnel were moved to Afghanistan — but likely under a new name — after it helped military counterterrorism units to track al-Qaida and other extremists.
In Iraq, where the war zone monitoring was first perfected, the cellphone metadata and an unknown number of phone calls were recorded and stored, said the former U.S. military official. When a terrorist suspect was captured or killed, their cellphones and other possessions were examined. Any phone numbers that could be retrieved were run through a U.S. telephone database, and relevant records and phone conversations retrieved.
U.S. troops and contractors also are told their own satellite and internet communications likely will be intercepted by their own nation's counterintelligence personnel, and checked for possible breaches of secrecy like the release of classified information, the officials said.
While the U.S. could legally monitor a foreign national civilian in a war zone, it would be unlikely. Wark said that it's possible that Washington nonetheless could have targeted Stephenson, given the breadth of U.S. information-gathering abilities. But he called that "rare," saying the U.S. generally would have needed to have a direct national interest in Stephenson to devote assets against him.
"For the NSA to try to do this on a New Zealand resident or citizen would be a contravention of the Five Eyes agreement," Wark said. "The rules of the road are pretty clear and established."
But if Stephenson was calling Afghans who are suspected of ties to militants, and who in turn were being monitored by U.S. or NATO spy services, that conversation could be recorded, transcribed and distributed. Usually, names of people who are not suspected of wrongdoing are deleted, according to one former administration official, and one former intelligence official.
The same practice applies to U.S. journalists, if they are talking to foreigners being monitored by the NSA in the U.S., the officials said.
New Zealand's top spy agency and the GCSB are banned from spying on its own citizens. Key has drawn fire for supporting a new bill in New Zealand's parliament that would expand the GCSB's powers to allow eavesdropping on its citizens under certain legal conditions.
Thousands of New Zealanders marched in nearly a dozen cities throughout the country over the weekend to protest the bill.
New Zealand's own spying controversy stretches back to the case MegaUpload founder Kim Dotcom, a fugitive from a U.S. indictment for alleged piracy through his Internet sharing site.
The GCSB spied on the internet mogul because of the U.S. indictment, before realizing German citizen Dotcom was legally a New Zealand resident at the time of the surveillance, and therefore banned from being targeted. That case prompted the New Zealand parliament to introduce the bill to expand the listening agency's internal spying authority.
New Zealand's government did acknowledge the existence of a confidential order that lists investigative journalists alongside spies and terrorists as potential threats to New Zealand's military. That document was leaked to New Zealand freelance investigative reporter and liberal activist Nicky Hager, who authored the Sunday Star-Times article, and provided a copy to The Associated Press.
New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman said the order will be modified to remove references to journalists.
Follow Kimberly Dozier on Twitter: http://twitter.com/kimberlydozier and Lara Jakes at: http://twitter.com/larajakesAP.