International Atomic Energy Agency, EU economic moves, and Security
Council votes. For the U.S., the UN has been an intelligence target
for years, if not decades.
United Nations, apparently. And the UN is not too happy about it.
On Monday, the UN said it would ask the U.S. 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
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 U.S.
intelligence interests. President Obama and other US officials have
defended NSA programs as necessary to protect the nation against
further terrorist attacks. If the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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
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
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 U.S. 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 U.S. was concerned that Mr. ElBaradei was too soft on Iran,
which the U.S. has long believed is intent on developing nuclear
weapons capability. But the spying revealed nothing of a nefarious
“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 U.S. might be interested in spying on the UN
is because other nations have used it as a place to assign spies with
The Russian spy ring rolled up by the U.S. 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
“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.”