NEW YORK — Secret documents reveal more than 1,000 targets of US 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 EU 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.
In addition to Israel, other targets involve 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 J. Snowden and shared by The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel.
‘This was an unimpressive target.’Ehud Olmert, on learning his e-mail was read
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 of the surveillance relates to issues examined by an advisory panel in Washington, which on Wednesday recommended stricter limits on the NSA, including restrictions to 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 appear on the target lists.
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 were compromised.
“This was an unimpressive target,” Olmert said. He noted, for example, that his most sensitive discussions with President George W. Bush took place in private.
“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.
The interception of Olmert’s office e-mail occurred while he was dealing with fallout from Israel’s military response to rocket attacks from Gaza, but also at a tense time in relations with the United States.
The two countries were simultaneously at odds on Israeli preparations to attack Iran’s nuclear program and cooperating on a wave of cyberattacks on Iran’s major nuclear enrichment facility.