Report: American Law Firm's Communications Spied On

, Legal Times


Revelations on Saturday that an American law firm's communications with a foreign government client were monitored by a National Security Agency ally may provide new impetus for the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit a 2013 decision that involved electronic surveillance law.

The justices, if they wish, have a vehicle for reconsidering their 5-4 decision in Clapper v. Amnesty International USA. The Center for Constitutional Rights last month filed a petition for review asking the high court to hear their challenge to surveillance by the NSA in light of Edward Snowden's revelations about the extent of the surveillance program.

The petition, Center for Constitutional Rights v. Obama, was filed on behalf of the organization itself and its legal staff.

"We have always been confident that our communications—including privileged attorney-client phone calls—were being unlawfully monitored by the NSA, but Edward Snowden’s revelations of a massive, indiscriminate NSA spying program changes the picture," said CCR Senior Attorney Shayana Kadidal in a statement last month. "Federal courts have dismissed surveillance cases, including ours, based on criteria established before Snowden’s documents proved that such concerns are obviously well-founded."

The New York Times on Saturday reported that a top-secret document obtained by Snowden reveals that an American law firm's communications with its client, the government of Indonesia, were monitored while the firm was assisting the foreign country in trade disputes with the United States.

The Australian counterpart to the NSA, according to the Times, notified the NSA that it was conducting surveillance of those communications and offered to share the information. The article suggested the law firm was Mayer Brown, which was then advising the Indonesian government on trade issues concerning cigarettes and shrimp.

Alex Abdo, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, said the spying revelation "confirms our fear that the NSA's surveillance rules gives short shrift to the privacy of communications between lawyers and their clients." Attorney-client communication, Abdo said in a written statement, "is sacred in our legal tradition and should not be wiretapped except in extraordinary circumstances."

Duane Layton, a Mayer Brown partner in Washington who leads the firm's government and global trade practice, told The Times he did not have any evidence that he or his firm had been under scrutiny by Australian or American intelligence agencies.

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

Mayer Brown said in a written statement that "there is no indication, either in the media reports or from our internal systems and controls, that the alleged surveillance occurred at the firm." The law firm said it "takes data protection and privacy very seriously, and we invest significant resources to keep client information secure."

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