A report in New Zealand's Sunday Star-Times suggested that the country's military, using telephone metadata acquired from the NSA, spied on a journalist stationed in Afghanistan. Despite the circumstantial evidence at hand, skepticism is in order.

The NSA's surveillance, which has been more fully documented thanks to the leaks of classified documents by Edward Snowden, includes at least three sets of data. The first is metadata from phone calls, information about phone numbers and duration collected on a daily basis from American telephone providers. The second is content of internet communications, collected from internet providers as part of the PRISM system. The third is the collection of data sent through undersea fiber optic cables in the United Kingdom, Brazil, and the United States. (And, almost certainly, a number of other places, too.)

The Star-Times suggests that the information may be from the first set of data.

The monitoring occurred in the second half of last year when [Jon] Stephenson was working as Kabul correspondent for the US McClatchy news service and for various New Zealand news organisations.

The Sunday Star-Times has learned that New Zealand Defence Force personnel had copies of intercepted phone "metadata" for Stephenson, the type of intelligence publicised by US intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden. The intelligence reports showed who Stephenson had phoned and then who those people had phoned, creating what the sources called a "tree" of the journalist's associates.

The government of New Zealand disagrees, according to the Associated Press.

The New Zealand government said Monday there is no evidence to support a report in the Sunday Star-Times newspaper that the military was assisted by the United States in monitoring the phone data of journalist Jon Stephenson, a New Zealander working for the U.S.-based McClatchy news organization.

The report is the first indication that the NSA's techniques may have been used to spy on a journalist. It challenges U.S. claims that the NSA programs were not used to target specific individuals, but rather to compile large pools of usage data.

(The latter sentence above is incorrect; the NSA targets specific individuals through the second program in our list, PRISM. And it has admitted running a number of checks against the phone metadata database looking for connections to individuals.)

The questions are: Did the NSA collect phone data for Stephenson? Did the New Zealand Defence Force seek that data or have access to it? And did the agency then use that data to investigate Stephenson?

To the first point, it's not clear that the NSA collects phone metadata from non-American providers. While Stephenson, as an employee of an American media organization, would possibly have a phone provided from an American provider, it's not clear if he did, and the leaks to date have only dealt with American companies. That said, there's almost no reason to suspect that the NSA would have many qualms about collecting data on other phone traffic. After all, the only limit on its collection of actual phone calls in the United States is the Fourth Amendment, which doesn't apply to a citizen of New Zealand.

Did the Defence Force seek that data? It says it didn't, as above. But, the AP also notes, New Zealand has an intelligence agreement with the U.S.

The NSA sometimes shares intelligence information with New Zealand agencies under a long-standing arrangement known as "Five Eyes." In addition to New Zealand and the U.S., the alliance includes Britain, Australia and Canada.

According to Snowden (and The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald), NSA analysts have broad access to collected data. It shares access to data it collects with Britain in a fairly frictionless manner. If New Zealand has similar access privileges, it may not require much approval from NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

As for whether or not, the Defence Force would seek to surveil a journalist, the Star-Times suggests it would.

An internal Defence document leaked to the Star-Times reveals that defence security staff viewed investigative journalists as "hostile" threats requiring "counteraction". The classified security manual lists security threats, including "certain investigative journalists" who may attempt to obtain "politically sensitive information".

We know that the United States government has sought similar metadata on journalists. In May, the Associated Press revealed that the FBI had subpoeaned a number of records related to phone numbers the agency maintains. It's not clear if that subpoena was to the metadata database compiled by the NSA or directly to the phone companies. (The metadata is collected by the NSA to track terror suspects, but the FBI can use information from it with a subpoena for criminal investigations.)

The strongest evidence against the idea again comes from the AP, in the form of a partial admission from the New Zealand government — one that even the reporter for the Star-Times called "unsettling" to his story.

New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman acknowledged the existence of an embarrassing confidential order that lists investigative journalists alongside spies and terrorists as potential threats to New Zealand's military. That document was leaked to Hager, who provided a copy to The Associated Press. Coleman said the order will be modified to remove references to journalists.

He also said the New Zealand Defense Force had conducted an extensive search of its records over the weekend and had found no evidence that either it or any other agency had spied on Stephenson.

This is one of the side effects of the Snowden revelations. There was a time when a flat denial by a government would be sufficient. Now, governments that are complicit in the NSA's surveillance are far less likely to get the benefit of the doubt. And it may take some time before we learn if that skepticism is warranted.

Photo: Stephenson. (AP)