The US National Security Agency has been spying on the United Nations, apparently. And the UN is not too happy about it.
On Monday, the UN said it would ask the US about a report in the German magazine Der Spiegel that the NSA had hacked into UN communications systems and was listening in on diplomatic video conferences.
The Der Spiegel report, based on revelations from NSA leaker Edward Snowden, said the NSA also eavesdropped on European Union diplomats in New York and was particularly interested in intelligence on the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
“We’re aware of the reports and we intend to be in touch with the relevant authorities on this,” said UN spokesman Farhan Haq.
Mr. Haq added that “the inviolability of diplomatic missions, including the United Nations and other international organizations, whose functions are protected by the relevant international conventions like the Vienna Convention, has been well-established in international law," according to the Associated Press.
If nothing else, this latest revelation may show the extent of US intelligence interests. President Obama and other US officials have defended NSA programs as necessary to protect the nation against further terrorist attacks. If the US spies on the UN and the EU, it means the program likely also sucks up intelligence on international economic moves and other issues unrelated to Al Qaeda.
That’s a context in which the US has not put NSA spying, say critics.
“Until the government stops pretending this is exclusively about terrorism, and stops pretending that terrorism is an existential threat or even the country’s greatest one, it will continue to lose credibility,” writes surveillance expert Marcy Wheeler Monday on her “Empty Wheel” blog.
Other experts said the revelations about US spying on the UN and on friendly European diplomats should come as no surprise. All nations want to know as much as possible about all others, in this view. What separates the US from other nations is capability, not intentions.
“This is not legitimate whistle blowing of government abuse, but exposing legitimate ops,” tweeted freelance national security reporter Joshua Foust on Monday.
Indeed, the US has viewed the UN as an intelligence target for years, if not decades.
In 2010, WikiLeaks published leaked documents that indicated that then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had asked diplomats to ferret out the credit-card numbers, frequent flier details, e-mail addresses, and other personal information of UN Security Council members.
The targets in question included UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “about whom the secretary of state requested information on ‘management and decision-making style and his influence on the secretariat,’ ” according to an account of the leaks on The Daily Beast.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had made similar requests during the years of the Bush administration, according to the documents.
In 2004, the Washington Post reported that the US had eavesdropped on telephone calls between the then-head of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, and Iranian diplomats. At the time, the US was concerned that Mr. ElBaradei was too soft on Iran, which the US has long believed is intent on developing nuclear weapons capability. But the spying revealed nothing of a nefarious nature.
“We’ve always assumed that this kind of thing goes on,” IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky told the Post in 2004. “We wish it were otherwise, but we know the reality.”
Then in 2003, the Bush administration wiretapped UN Security Council members to discover their intentions prior to votes on resolutions dealing with Iraq, according to a contemporaneous report in the British newspaper The Guardian.
Of course, one reason the US might be interested in spying on the UN is because other nations have used it as a place to assign spies with diplomatic cover.
The Russian spy ring rolled up by the US in 2010 was managed by sleeper agents based in the New York offices of the Russian mission to the UN, for instance. Posing as low-level diplomats, these agents passed cash to, and took information from, Russian agents living without benefit of official cover.
“The Russian mission to the United Nations has been at the center of Moscow’s sprawling intelligence-gathering operations in the United States for decades, providing Soviet and Russian operatives with ideal circumstances to infiltrate US diplomatic missions, businesses, and circles of political elites,” wrote Colum Lynch in Foreign Policy magazine in 2003.
Mr. Lynch quotes former US permanent representative to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan on this subject. When named to his post in 1975, Moynihan was summoned to the office of then-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.
“There was something urgent he had to tell me,” Moynihan wrote in the mid-1980s. “The first thing I must know about the United Nations, [Rockefeller] said, is that the Soviets would be listening to every telephone call I made from our mission from the ambassador’s suite in the Waldorf Towers.”