The National Security Agency has the authority to spy on pretty much any country, with the exception the other four members of the "Five Eyes": Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. The agency is also free to keep an eye on the European Union, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the International Atomic Energy Agency. All this authority is laid out in a 2010 certification from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court—a document among those leaked by Edward Snowden, the Washington Post reports. It lists 193 countries of possible intelligence interest. And US snooping isn't limited to communications conducted by these countries and bodies; the NSA can also look at communications that discuss them.
The document's wording leaves open the possibility of targeting reporters, academics, and activists, the Post notes. For instance, the paper suggests, the NSA could theoretically eye a foreign researcher with knowledge of German trade plans, or even keep tabs on a US academic who forwards that researcher's phone number—if the information involved is tied to US intelligence needs. A former intelligence official says that scenario is unlikely, and an NSA rep says the agency can only snoop on foreigners "reasonably believed to be outside the United States." But such documents show "both the potential scope of the government’s surveillance activities and the exceedingly modest role the court plays in overseeing them," says an ACLU rep.