WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- New Zealand on Monday disputed a newspaper report saying its military conspired with U.S. spy agencies to monitor a freelance journalist in Afghanistan, a report that has provoked concerns over how surveillance programs revealed by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden might be used to spy on reporters.
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.
Prime Minister John Key fanned the debate Monday by saying it is possible that reporters could get caught in surveillance nets when the U.S. spies on enemy combatants. New Zealand and the United States are party to a five-country agreement on sharing intelligence information.
U.S. surveillance programs have become the focus of a global debate since Snowden, a former defense contract worker, leaked classified information about the NSA in June. The U.S. says the NSA programs are necessary to avert terror attacks, while critics have called it unregulated spying.
Military officials in Wellington were quick to reject the claims in the article by freelance investigative reporter and liberal activist Nicky Hager. He wrote that the military became unhappy at Stephenson's reporting on how it treated Afghan prisoners.
"We have identified no information at this time that supports Mr. Hager's claims," Maj. Gen. Tim Keating, the acting defense force chief, said in a statement.
He said the military officers responsible for operations in Afghanistan had assured him there had been no unlawful monitoring of Stephenson by New Zealand. "This includes asking foreign organizations to do this on our behalf," he said.
Also Monday, 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.
"The collection of metadata on behalf of the NZDF by the U.S. would not be a legitimate practice, when practiced on a New Zealand citizen," Coleman said. "It wouldn't be something I would support as the minister, and I'd be very concerned if that had actually been the case."
Metadata is the information associated with a phone call or an email, such as the location of the caller or sender, or the length of the call. It is analogous to the information available on the envelope of a letter sent by regular mail.
Prime Minister Key, who is traveling in South Korea, told a reporter from The New Zealand Herald newspaper that "if you rang a member of the Taliban that the Americans were monitoring because they believed them to be a threat, then in theory that's how you could show up."
"I'm not saying that's happened. I'm just saying that we don't go and monitor journalists," he added.
On Monday, Hager said he stood by the story.
"Direct denials are always unsettling, but I would not have published unless I had a really good source," he said.
Hager, who has written several books on New Zealand military intelligence, declined to elaborate on his sourcing. He said he's faced unwarranted denials before.
The confidential order he obtained states under the heading "The Threat" that "Organizations with extreme ideologies may try to acquire classified information, not necessarily to give to a potential enemy, but because its use may bring the government into disrepute. There is also a threat from certain investigative journalists who may seek to acquire and exploit official information for similar reasons."
The revelation has angered journalism advocates in New Zealand.
Coleman said the order, first issued a decade ago and reissued in 2005, was heavy-handed and inappropriate, and that he'd asked the defense force to rewrite it to remove the references to journalists.
The story on Stephenson came after he sued the defense force for defamation. Stephenson had sought 500,000 New Zealand dollars ($405,000) in reparation after claiming the defense force had damaged his reputation by implying he fabricated an interview with a unit commander. During the trial this month, the defense force acknowledged the interview may have taken place. The trial ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict.
Stephenson, who is on vacation in Europe, could not be reached Monday.
The White House did not respond Sunday to requests for comment on the Sunday Star-Times story.
McClatchy said it had not yet spoken with its former freelancer, or with the U.S. or New Zealand governments.
"We don't have much information on this. We really have learned about it this morning from the Star-Times report," said Anders Gyllenhaal, McClatchy's vice president for news and Washington editor.
The company based in Sacramento, California, hasn't lodged a complaint with U.S. officials because it is still trying to figure out what exactly happened and when, Gyllenhaal added.
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.
Snowden's leaked information exposed the reach of the U.S. programs that monitor millions of telephone and Internet records inside and outside the U.S. Officials have said the surveillance tracks only metadata and not specific details like the contents of telephone calls. They say the surveillance programs have averted multiple terror attacks.