Why did NSA spy on UN? Not to counter terrorism, secret documents show.

A report in the German news magazine Der Spiegel claims that documents obtained by Edward Snowden show that the NSA has spied on the UN and European Union.

Michael Probst/AP/File
A protester holds a makeshift video camera outside the US Army's 'Dagger Complex' near Griesheim, Germany, on July 20. The massively secured property is run by the US military and supposed to be used by the US National Security Agency.

The National Security Agency (NSA) has bugged United Nations and European Union internal communications, according to secret documents obtained by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden and disclosed by the German news magazine Der Spiegel.

The story, published Sunday, charges that the NSA “infiltrated the Europeans’ internal computer network between New York and Washington, used US embassies abroad to intercept communications, and eavesdropped on video conferences of UN diplomats.” Among the UN activities targeted by the NSA, Der Spiegel says, was the UN’s Vienna-based nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The report also asserts that there are “secret eavesdropping posts in 80 US embassies and consulates around the world,” which the NSA operates along with the Central Intelligence Agency. The program is referred to as the “Special Collection Service.”

The UN responded to the report on Monday. UN spokesman Farhan Haq said that the United Nations will "reach out" to US officials about the reports of eavesdropping, as it has in the past when such allegations have been raised, The Associated Press reported.

Mr. Haq noted 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 international law.” He added, "Therefore, member-states are expected to act accordingly to protect the inviolability of diplomatic missions."

President Obama defended NSA surveillance programs in his Aug. 9 press conference as necessary to protect the nation and its citizens against terrorist attacks. It is “intelligence that helps us protect the American people and they're worth preserving,” Mr. Obama said. The authors of the Der Speigel report say the surveillance aimed at the UN, EU, and various nations is “intensive and well-organized – and it has little or nothing to do with counter-terrorism.”

Spying at the UN and elsewhere is far from uncommon. “Even in UN circles a little bit of spying has always been viewed as a minor offense,” the Der Spiegel report acknowledges. In fact, the NSA documents that Mr. Snowden provided to Der Spiegel included one that reveals the NSA caught the Chinese spying on the UN in 2011. So the NSA penetrated the Chinese communications and proceeded to “tap into Chinese SIGINT (signals intelligence) collection," Der Spiegel reports. Thus, spies were spying on spies.

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