McClatchy Wants to Know If the NSA Helped New Zealand Spy on its Reporter

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McClatchy Wants to Know If the NSA Helped New Zealand Spy on its Reporter
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McClatchy Wants to Know If the NSA Helped New Zealand Spy on its Reporter

Publishing giant McClatchy sent a letter yesterday to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, demanding that he clarify whether or not the National Security Agency helped the government of New Zealand spy on one of McClatchy's reporters.

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As we reported earlier this week, the Sunday Star-Times of New Zealand ran a report from an independent journalist suggesting that the New Zealand military received phone metadata — records about call duration and phone numbers — from the NSA. That information was allegedly used as part of the military's attempt to monitor Jon Stephenson, who was reporting from Kabul for papers in New Zealand. In part, those reports focused on reports of war crimes committed by the country's special forces.

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New Zealand denied the claims, but that didn't satisfy McClatchy. In its letter, the company insists the DNI provide a response. "We urgently seek to know the scope of any information relating to Mr. Stephenson that may have been compiled," it concludes, "and, if that information was gathered, the justification for doing so." After all:

The allegations ofU.S. intelligence agencies helping to target a journalist working for a U.S. news organization contained in the reports are of course disturbing. The metadata that intelligence agencies have routinely been collecting to fight terrorism can be used to learn a great deal about a person, including their habits, their preferences and, in the case of journalists, their sources. Absent a well-founded, good faith belief that a journalist is engaged in terrorist activity, compiling and analyzing a journalist's metadata would violate core First Amendment principles and U.S. law.

It is certainly not beyond the federal government to seek phone records for a journalist. Last May, the Associated Press reported that the Justice Department had subpoenaed and received phone records from the agency over a span of several months. That information included metadata on calls to and from AP-affiliated numbers at several offices, inside the Capitol, and reporters' cell phones.

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The interplay between the United States and its partners in sharing intelligence has been the subject of new scrutiny in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks. We've reported in the past on the exchange of information between the NSA and its equivalent in the UK, the GCHQ. (Earlier today, The Guardian reported that this partnership cost the NSA nearly $150 million a year.) What's unique in this scenario — if the Star-Times' report is accurate — is that it would be the first time an aspect of the NSA surveillance detailed in the Snowden leaks was shown to have been shared with our international partners.

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That it may have been used to undermine a reporter documenting war crimes will probably mean it probably doesn't become a poster child in the NSA's push to defend those programs.

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Photo: McClatchy's Jon Stephenson. (AP)

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