By Thalif Deen*
The United Nations, along with the 193 diplomatic missions located in New York, have long been veritable battlegrounds for spying, wire-tapping and electronic surveillance.
When the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA) held its annual award ceremony in December 2013, one of the video highlights was a hilarious skit on the clumsy attempts at spying going on inside the highest levels of the Secretariat—and right up to the 38th-floor offices of then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
When I took the floor, as one of the winners of the UNCA gold medals, I gave the Secretary-General, standing next to me, an unsolicited piece of light-hearted advice: “if you want to find out whether your phone line is being tapped, you only have to sneeze loudly, and a voice at the other end would instinctively and courteously respond: “Bless you”, I said, amid laugher.
Perhaps by coincidence, three days later, the New York Times ran a story about the widespread electronic surveillance by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and Britain’s spy agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which had targeted over 1,000 political leaders, diplomats, and international institutions.
These included the UN children’s agency UNICEF and the Geneva-based UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).
At the UN, virtually all the big powers play the spying game, including the US, the Russians (and particularly the Soviets during the Cold War era), the French, the Brits, and the Chinese — and none of them can afford to take a “holier than thou” attitude.
During the height of the Cold War in the 1960s and 1970s, the UN was a veritable battleground for the United States and the now-defunct Soviet Union to spy on each other. The American and Soviet spooks were known to be crawling all over the building—in committee rooms, in the press gallery, in the Secretariat and, most importantly, in the UN library which was a drop-off point for sensitive political documents.
The extent of Cold War espionage in the United Nations was laid bare by a 1975 US Congressional Committee, named after Senator Frank Church (Democrat-Idaho) who chaired it while investigating abuses by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
The evidence given before the Church Committee included a revelation that the CIA had planted one of its Russian lip-reading experts in a press booth overlooking the Security Council chamber so that he could monitor the lip movements of Russian delegates, as they consulted each other in low whispers.
Obviously, there was nothing sacred in the corridors of power at the United Nations.
In his 1978 book, “A Dangerous Place,” Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former US envoy to the United Nations, described the cat-and-mouse espionage game that went on inside the bowels of the world body, and particularly the UN library.
Back in October 2013, When Clare Short, Britain’s former minister for international development, revealed that British intelligence agents had spied on former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan by bugging his office just before the disastrous US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the UN chief was furious that his discussions with world leaders had been compromised.
And as she talked to Annan on the 38th floor of the UN Secretariat building, Short told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), she was thinking, “Oh dear, there will be a transcript of this, and people will see what he and I are saying.”
Nearly 10 years later, the accusing finger was pointed towards the United States, not Britain.
James A. Paul, who monitored the politics of the United Nations for over 19 years as executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, told me that electronic spying at the UN is a logical part of the worldwide espionage programme by the US National Security Agency (NSA).
The programme came to light following documents released by Edward Snowden, a US whistleblower who was a NSA contractor, worked for the CIA, and is currently living in political exile in Russia.
“It shows us the latest electronic approaches to surveillance ‘listening’, including the reports that the US has cracked into the UN’s encrypted video system and that there is very aggressive monitoring of UN officials and high-ranking diplomats,” Paul said.
He also pointed out that none of this came as a surprise (though it is no less outrageous) in view of the tapping of the phones of 35 heads of state, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the collection of information from some 70 million calls during one month in France.
“The UN has argued that surveillance targeting the organization is contrary to international law and to the US’s responsibility as the host country, but such claims have been systematically and flagrantly disregarded,” he noted.
Meanwhile, in April 1978, UN Under-Secretary-General Arkady Shevchenko of the
then USSR had the dubious distinction of being the highest-ranking Soviet UN official to defect to the United States—with bag, baggage and a mistress, to boot.
Shevchenko, who was head of the UN’s Department of Political and Security Council Affairs, was accused of being a double agent working for US intelligence while spying for the Soviets inside the United Nations.
Back in September 2013, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, throwing diplomatic protocol to the winds, launched a blistering attack on the United States for illegally infiltrating its communications network, surreptitiously intercepting phone calls, and breaking into the Brazilian Mission to the United Nations.
Departing from a longstanding tradition of closed-door diplomacy on bilateral disputes, she dropped a political bombshell on the Assembly hall overflowing with world leaders, foreign ministers and ambassadors from 193 countries sitting in rapt silence.
Justifying her public criticism, she told delegates that the problem of electronic surveillance goes beyond a bilateral relationship. “It affects the international community itself and demands a response from it.”
Rousseff said revelations concerning the activities of a global network of electronic espionage have caused indignation and repudiation in public opinion around the world. But in Brazil, she said, “The situation was even more serious, as it emerged that we were targeted by this intrusion.”
She said that the personal data of citizens was intercepted indiscriminately. Corporate information, often of high economic and even strategic value, was at the center of espionage activity.
At the same time, Brazilian diplomatic missions, among them the Permanent Mission to the United Nations and the president’s office, had their communications intercepted, she charged.
Rousseff unleashed her attack even as US President Barack Obama was awaiting his turn to address the General Assembly on the opening day of the annual high-level debate. By longstanding tradition, Brazil is the first speaker, followed by the United States.
Even though Obama, and the US, had the right of reply, he did not address the issues raised by Rousseff, who also canceled a proposed official visit to the White House protesting the electronic surveillance of her country. “We have let the US government know our disapproval, and demanded explanations, apologies and guarantees that such procedures will never be repeated,” she said.
According to documents released by US whistleblower Edward Snowden, the illegal electronic surveillance of Brazil was conducted by the US National Security Agency (NSA). The Germany-based Der Spiegel magazine reported that NSA technicians had managed to decrypt the UN’s internal video teleconferencing (VTC) system, as part of its surveillance of the world body.
The combination of this new access to the UN and the cracked encryption code led to “a dramatic improvement in VTC data quality and (the) ability to decrypt the VTC traffic,” the NSA agents reportedly said. In the article, titled “How America Spies on Europe and the UN”, Spiegel said that in just under three weeks, the number of decrypted communications increased from 12 to 458.
Subsequently, there were new charges of spying—but this time around the Americans were accused of using the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) in Baghdad to intercept Iraqi security intelligence in an attempt to undermine, and perhaps overthrow, the government of President Saddam Hussein.
The charges, spread across the front pages of the Washington Post and the Boston Globe, only confirmed the longstanding Iraqi accusation that UNSCOM was “a den of spies,” mostly American and British.
Established by the Security Council immediately after the 1991 Gulf War, UNSCOM was mandated to eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and destroy that country’s capabilities to produce nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
The head of UNSCOM, Richard Butler of Australia, however, vehemently denied charges that his inspection team in Iraq had spied for the United States. “We have never conducted spying for anyone,” Butler told reporters.
Asked to respond to news reports that UNSCOM may have helped Washington collect sensitive Iraqi information to destabilize the Saddam Hussein regime, Butler retorted: “Don’t believe everything you read in print.” But he never made the distinction between what was believable and what was unbelievable.
Around the same time, the New York Times weighed in with a front-page story
quoting US officials as saying that “American spies had worked undercover on teams of UN arms inspectors ferreting out secret Iraqi weapons programmes.” The cover, for all intents and purposes, had been blown.
In an editorial, the Times said that “using UN activities in Iraq as a cover for American spy operations would be a sure way to undermine the international organization, embarrass the United States and strengthen Mr. Hussein.”
“Washington did cross a line it should not have if it placed American agents on the UN team with the intention of gathering information that could be used for military strikes against targets in Baghdad,” the editorial said. The whole episode not only embarrassed the United Nations but also put its integrity, impartiality and credibility in doubt.
- The above excerpts are from a newly-released, 220-page book titled “No Comment – and Don’t Quote me on That”, a rich collection of political anecdotes, both serious and hilarious, reflecting over 40 years of reporting from the United Nations. The book is authored by Thalif Deen, a former UN staffer, a onetime Sri Lankan diplomat, and a veteran UN correspondent. It is available on Amazon worldwide, and at the Vijitha Yapa bookshop in Sri Lanka. The link to Amazon USA via the author’s website follows: https://www.rodericgrigson.com/no-comment-by-thalif-deen/