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NSA spied on EU antitrust official who sparred with US tech giants

A report in The New York Times pulls from Edward Snowden documents to give more details about agency surveillance of foreign officials and businesses, as well as humanitarian organizations.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (left) has raised strong objections to the NSA's reported spying on oil company Petrobras. Today's Times story once again raises the issue of spying for economic advantage.
Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images

The NSA and its British counterpart, the GCHQ, spied on the official in charge of the European Commission's antitrust office, which has threatened Google with large fines and has already levied punitive fees from Microsoft and Intel, a new report says.

Relying on documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, The New York Times today gives "a much fuller portrait" of the intelligence agencies' interests, reporting that the allied services' targets from 2008 to 2011 have included not only Joaquin Almunia, the aforementioned antitrust official, but also an Israeli prime minister and defense minister; various other heads of state (and sometimes their families); the French oil and gas giant Total; Unicef, the United Nations' Children's Fund; and the UN Institute for Disarmament studies.

This particular set of documents also lists, "though in smaller numbers," targets associated with terrorism and other "more obvious" areas, the Times says.

The documents don't specify if the spying on Almunia was done at the behest of the NSA or the GCHQ, the Times reports, adding that when the paper contacted the antitrust official about the surveillance, he said he was "very upset."

The NSA, for its part, responded to the Times' queries by saying, "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."

The agency representative also said some economic spying was necessary. "The intelligence community's efforts to understand economic systems and policies, and monitor anomalous economic activities, are critical to providing policy makers with the information they need to make informed decisions that are in the best interest of our national security."

In a profile of the NSA last month, the Times said the agency had "an almost unlimited agenda," spying "routinely on friends as well as foes" not only to fight terrorism but also to "achieve 'diplomatic advantage' over such allies as France and Germany and 'economic advantage' over Japan and Brazil, among other countries."

And in October, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said during a congressional hearing that monitoring of "leadership intentions" was a "hardy perennial" of the intelligence trade and one of the first things he learned in intelligence school back in 1963. He also answered "absolutely" when asked if US allies had spied on the states.

Nevertheless, revelations about the NSA's activities have caused a stir in Europe and elsewhere, and a report released this week by an investigative panel appointed by President Obama recommended stronger limits on monitoring foreign leaders, especially those of allied countries. The NSA told the Times in regard to today's story that it's reviewing how it coordinates on allied spying.

The executive director of Médecins du Monde, a relief organization that services war-torn areas and that was also spied on, told the Times that "there is absolutely no reason for our operations to be secretly monitored."

Read the Times report here.