Revelations of widespread data mining by the National Security Agency may be sending shock waves across America and Europe, where digital privacy concerns have been mounting in recent years.
But the disclosure of the NSA's efforts to gather information from companies like Google, Yahoo, and Verizon came as little shock to foreign diplomats here at U.N. headquarters -- even though many members of the Security Council are uniquely vulnerable to American surveillance sweeps, because they rely on commercial email systems. Secretary General Ban Ki moon, a former South Korean foreign minister who likely relied on spies during his years in government, has shown little interest in weighing in on the controversy, according to U.N.-based diplomats.
For years, those diplomats say, they have taken it for granted that their phone calls, emails, and social media interactions are being monitored by spy agencies from the United States, China, Russia, and many other countries.
"In our view it's normal," Atoki Ileka, the Democratic Republic of the Congo's former U.N. envoy, told Turtle Bay in a telephone interview from Paris, where he currently serves as his country's ambassador. "It's not just a U.S. thing, or Russian, or French. It's common in all countries; spies going through our web sites, emails. It's something we are used to and living through."
Several U.N. based diplomats and officials interviewed for this story said they shared similar expectations -- that most of their electronic and digital communications are being monitored by friendly and unfriendly governments.
"I think we all assume all of our emails are being monitored by all sorts of countries," said one senior U.N. official, who like most others interviewed for this piece spoke by telephone or communicated by email on the condition of anonymity.
Another top U.N. official echoed that sentiment, adding that he had not heard that any of his colleagues had responded to the current surveillance uproar by cancelling their accounts with Yahoo or any of the other American service providers that reportedly cooperated with the American intelligence agency. "People are too electronically engaged in the web to quit it," the official said. Indeed, a senior East European diplomat who routinely communicates with me by email sent me a message on another topic this morning from a personal Gmail account.
Still, the latest revelations have highlighted particular vulnerabilities for poor countries that lack the financial wherewithal to secure their email communications. For instance, a review of the email lists for U.N. Security Council political councilors -- the diplomats who organize the council's daily business -- shows that countries like Azerbaijan, Rwanda, Russia, and Pakistan communicate with their colleagues on commercial Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo accounts. Chinese diplomats communicate with their council partners through a combination of government email addresses and Gmail. In contrast, the United States, Britain, and France communicate through government emails, and they send encrypted email cables to capital through secure lines.
Electronic espionage has had a place of pride in U.N. history since the organization's birth, according to an account in Stephen C. Schlesinger's history of the U.N. founding. At the opening U.N. conference in San Francisco in 1945, U.S. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius routinely reviewed the secret diplomatic cables sent by his colleagues to foreign capitals. The U.S. Army Signal Security Agency, the forerunner of the National Security Agency, forced commercial telegraph companies to hand over hundreds of pages of secret diplomatic messages.
Even in modern times, U.N.-based espionage operations involving U.S., Russian, or nationals from other countries periodically come to light. The first major round of Wikileaks cables published by the Guardian and the New York Times included a cable that instructed American diplomats to collect information on their colleagues. In the run up to the Iraq war, a British newspaper reported that the National Security Agency had ordered an eavesdropping "surge" on their telephones in order to learn their voting positions on a resolution that would pave the way for a U.S.- led war against Iraq. "The fact is, this sort of thing goes with the territory," Pakistan's then U.N. ambassador, Munir Akram, told me at the time. "You'd have to be very naive to be surprised."
In the wake of such revelations, said one European diplomat, some diplomats take precautionary actions, for instance limiting their email communications to secure government accounts. But over time most drop their guard, exchanging notes through government or commercial email accounts alike. The feeling, the diplomat said, is that the United Nations, with its 193 member states, holds few secrets. On the most sensitive matters, communications are passed on by secure emails, word of mouth, exchanged in document form by hand, or made available for "eyes only" within the secure confines of a foreign mission.
Still, while many diplomats are cavalier they say their political counterparts back home are not, given the rising public backlash against American digital giants like Facebook and Google. In Eastern Europe, the scene of intensive eavesdropping during the Cold War, the latest revelations have only increased concern about the loss of privacy. In Germany, for instance, Google faced intense opposition to its digital street mapping program. Today, a digital stroll down some of Berlin's main boulevards reveals pixilated buildings.
U.N. officials said that the U.N.'s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, is considering issuing a statement criticizing American surveillance practices. But here at U.N. headquarters the top brass have hardly taken note of the latest disclosure. The issue, said one U.N. official, is not on the "radar screen" of U.N. policy makers in New York, "probably further proof that we operate in a bubble, cut off from the real world."
If further proof were needed, the official delivered those remarks to Turtle Bay by email. Even PRISM, the official noted, "doesn't seem to stop us being indiscreet."
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Iran denounced the United States at the United Nations on Thursday night for engaging in a pattern of "provocative and covert operations," including the use of an RQ-170 unmanned spy drone that was captured by Iranian authorities, and warned that Tehran "reserves its legitimate rights to take all necessary measures to protect its national sovereignty."
Iran's U.N. ambassador Mohammad Khazaee wrote in a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that the United States has stepped up covert operations against Iran in recent months, perhaps referring to the assassination of three Iranian nuclear scientists. He called on the United Nations to condemn what he described as "acts of aggression" and to take "clear and effective measures" to "put an end to these dangerous and unlawful acts."
The diplomatic protest comes as the Iranian government has itself come under intensive criticism at the United Nations over its nuclear program, its human rights conduct, and its alleged role in an assassination plot against Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United Nations.
Earlier this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report expressing serious "concern" that Iran has been seeking to master the technology to develop nuclear weapons capability. The U.N. General Assembly's Human Rights Council, meanwhile, adopted a resolution deploring the alleged assassination attempt.
A copy of the latest Iranian letter, which will also be presented to the presidents of the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly, was emailed to Turtle Bay by the Iranian government.
It says the American drone "violated Iran's air space" by flying "250 Kilometers deep into Iranian territory up to the northern region of the city of Tabas, where it faced prompt and forceful action by the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
"This is not the only act of aggression and covert operation by the United States against the Islamic Republic of Iran," Khazee wrote. "My Government emphasizes that this blatant and unprovoked air violation by the United States Government is tantamount to an act of hostility against the Islamic Republic of Iran in clear contravention of international law, in particular, the basic tenets of the United Nations Charter."
(Full text below.)
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* * *
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
No. 1396 8 December 2011
Upon instructions from my Government, I have the honor to draw your kind attention to the provocative and covert operations against the Islamic Republic of Iran by the United States Government, which have increased and intensified in recent months.
In the continuation of such trend, recently, an American RQ-170 unmanned spy plane, bearing a specific serial number, violated Iran 's air space. This plane flied 250 Kilometers deep into Iranian territory up to the northern region of the city of Tabas , where it faced prompt and forceful action by the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In the past, the Iranian Government lodged its strong protests against similar acts by submitting several Notes including Notes No. 164440 dated 29 October 2008 and No. 268483 dated 11 February 2009 to the Government of the United States.
My Government emphasizes that this blatant and unprovoked air violation by the United States Government is tantamount to an act of hostility against the Islamic Republic of Iran in clear contravention of international law, in particular, the basic tenets of the United Nations Charter. The Iranian Government expresses its strong protest over these violations and acts of aggression and warns against the destructive consequences of the recurrence of such acts. The Islamic Republic of Iran reserves its legitimate rights to take all necessary measures to protect its national sovereignty.
My Government, hereby, calls for the condemnation of such acts of aggression and requests for clear and effective measures to be taken to put an end to these dangerous and unlawful acts in line with the United Nations' responsibilities to maintain international and regional peace and security, in accordance with the letter and spirit of the United Nations Charter.
I am sending identical letters to the President of the General Assembly and the President of the Security Council. It would be appreciated if this letter could be circulated as a document of the General Assembly under the agenda item 83 and of the Security Council.
Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.
H.E. Mr. Ban Ki-moon
Secretary-General of the United Nations
cc: H.E. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin
President of Security Council
United Nations, New York
cc: H.E. Mr. Nasser A. Al-Nasser
President of General Assembly
United Nations, New York
The United States and other big powers have spied on the United Nations as long as it has existed. But WikiLeaks' disclosure Sunday of the first batch of a massive trove of internal U.S. diplomatic cables and directives gives a sense of how voracious America's appetite for information at the U.N. has grown.
A sweeping State Department directive -- the 2009 National HUMINT Collection Directive -- instructs U.S. diplomats to collect information on everything from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's views on the Middle East to the frequent-flyer account numbers of foreign delegates to the personal relationships between the U.N. representatives in Iran and North Korea and top officials in those governments. (HUMINT is shorthand for Human Intelligence Collection).
The directive, which was signed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, identifies five top near-term intelligence priorities: Sudan, the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Somalia, Iran, and North Korea. But the State Department also expressed interest in a wide spread of other issues, from U.N. bureaucratic turf battles and revelations of U.N. corruption to possible financial links between U.N. staff, foreign governments, and terrorist organizations to voting practices of third-world countries in the U.N.'s myriad committees.
Most of the directive's information requests involve standard diplomatic reporting about foreign governments' positions. For instance, it places a high priority on obtaining information about the positions of the four other permanent members of the Security Council -- Britain, China, France, and Russia -- toward Iran, North Korea, and the Middle East. The directive urges American diplomats to discern the "views of members states on the next SYG [Secretary General] race, to include preferred candidates and candidates lacking U.N. member support." That phrase provided the first indication that the United States is at least considering the possibility that Ban may not be assured a second term when his first 5-year term expires at the end of 2011.
In most cases, the directive simply seeks to use American diplomats to gauge international attitudes towards a broad spectrum of U.S. and U.N. policies. For instance, how does the U.N. community view the role of the U.S. military in resolving conflicts in Africa? What are the prospects of China and Russia taking a tougher stance on human rights in Burma or Zimbabwe? How is international sentiment toward the International Criminal Court evolving?
But it also flags U.S. suspicions about the intentions of its foreign counterparts, citing concern that countries like China, France, and India may seek to "gain influence in Africa via U.N. peace operations." (China, for instance, now provides more U.N. peacekeepers than any other major power). It also voices concern about efforts by the European Union to secure additional voting rights in the U.N. and its various agencies, a move that could potentially dilute American influence.
Carne Ross, a former British diplomat, said that it's hardly news that countries spy on one another at the U.N. "More harmful is the reality that U.S. cables can be publicized in this devastating manner," he told Turtle Bay. "Diplomats may think twice before sharing confidences with U.S. diplomats -- at least until WikiLeaks is forgotten."
Perhaps the most surprising detail to emerge so far from the leaks is the extent to which U.S. diplomats in New York and abroad have been tasked with activities traditionally associated with intelligence gathering; i.e., collecting personal or financial information from their sources.
According to the directive, American diplomats are instructed to collect detailed biographical information, including business cards, cell-phone numbers, pagers, faxes, email listings, Internet or Intranet handles, credit-card and frequent flyer account numbers, and work schedules. It also calls on U.S. diplomats to collect "biographic and biometric information on ranking North Korean diplomats," as well as on diplomats from China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, South Africa, Sudan, and Syria.
The new revelations were first divulged Sunday as part of a coordinated disclosure by WikiLeaks of nearly a quarter of a million sensitive U.S. diplomatic cables by several international news organizations, including the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and Le Monde. WikiLeaks released a selection of the actual documents on its website Sunday afternoon EST.
The State Department cables are suspected of having been passed on to WikiLeaks by a 22-year-old intelligence analyst named Bradley Manning, according to the Guardian. Last spring, Manning was charged with leaking sensitive materials to WikiLeaks, including a video of an Apache helicopter killing two Reuters employees in 2007. He is facing court martial.
In a statement, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley denied American diplomats had been instructed to conduct espionage: "Our diplomats are just that, diplomats. They represent our country around the world and engage openly and transparently with representatives of foreign governments and civil society. Through this process, they collect information that shapes our policies and actions. This is what diplomats, from our country and other countries, have done for hundreds of years."
A spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment. Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, said the U.N. was "not in a position to comment on the authenticity of the document" but noted that the U.N. is "by its very nature a transparent organization that makes a great deal of information about its activities available to the public and member states." One U.N. official said that the organization had requested an explanation from the U.S. government on the allegations, but has not received an answer.
International treaties prohibit spying at the United Nations, but it is widely practiced by many states. A British intelligence analyst once revealed that U.S. and British spies listened in on the conversations of then Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the eve of U.S. led invasion of Iraq.
"The UN has previously asserted that bugging the secretary general is illegal," the Guardian reported, "citing the 1946 UN convention on privileges and immunities which states: ‘The premises of the United Nations shall be inviolable. The property and assets of the United Nations, wherever located and by whomsoever held, shall be immune from search, requisition, confiscation, expropriation and any other form of interference, whether by executive, administrative, judicial or legislative action.'"
Other U.S. intelligence targets identified in the State Department directive:
*The U.S. solicits information on "plans and intentions" of U.N. Security Council members, especially the permanent members, in considering additional sanctions against North Korea. Also calls on U.S. diplomats to determine North Korea's position on "WMD-related issues" at the United Nations.
*The U.S. seeks information on Ban's "plans and intentions" regarding Iran, and wants to known whether the secretary-general or any member states intend to "pressure" the U.S. to take a particular course in the Middle East peace process.
*The U.S. solicits information on Iranian efforts to develop or promote spread of nuclear weapons and build diplomat support for its activities. Calls for monitoring Tehran's activities as the chair of the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), and its membership on the board of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, an agency that has long touted Tehran's counternarcotics efforts. The U.S. is also seeking information on "development and democratization activities of the UNDP in Iran; details about the UNDP Resident Coordinator's relationship with Iranian officials."
*Foreign NGOs with influence on a range of issues, including human rights, globalization, justice and reproductive health. The U.S. directive voices concern at the capacity of some NGOs to "undermine U.S. policy initiatives" at the U.N. or to share "confidential" information with U.N. staff.
*The U.S. seeks information on any possible U.N. plans to expand, reinforce, or replace the U.N.-backed peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
*The U.S. directive also seeks the views of all key parties, including Hamas, in influencing the debate on the Middle East at the United Nations. For instance, it highlights the importance of deciphering the "views, plans and tactics of Hamas to gain support in the UNSC [U.N. Security Council] or UNGA [U.N. General Assembly] for its strategies and positions."
*The U.S. intelligence community is not only out for itself. The directive seeks information about possible threats against U.N. personnel and humanitarian aid workers in Iraq. It also seeks information on possible financial irregularities in a variety of U.N. agencies and international funds, including the World Health Organization and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.
*Solicits information on the views of the Security Council and other U.N. members toward Cuban, Iranian, and Syrian bids for U.N. leadership position, presumably in an effort to block them from succeeding.
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There is perhaps only one thing that remains clear in the international furor over the defection/kidnapping of the Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri: getting another country's nuclear scientist on the rolls is the greatest coup that a spy agency can achieve. It's certainly more valuable than implanting a photogenic "illegal" into another country, as Russia's cover operators did in America with their undercover spy, Anna Chapman.
But the excitement of the chase can quickly fade, leaving a generation of atomic defectors feeling a bit jilted as they struggle to make a life for themselves in their new country. "Freedom can be harsh," Charles Duelfer, who led the CIA inquiry into Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, told Turtle Bay. "The U.S. government's interest wanes pretty quickly once fully debriefed. Then what do you do? Can't work on the U.S. nuclear program. Write a book? Then what?"
As long as there have been nuclear programs, there have been nuclear spies. In 1942, before he created James Bond, Ian Flemming, then a 34-year-old commander in the Royal Navy's volunteer reserve, toiled away in a naval intelligence unit and devised and realized a plan to create an elite unit of intelligence commandos who would cross enemy lines to capture vital enemy secrets, according to Sean Longden's history of the squad, T-Force: The Forgotten Heroes of 1945. Under Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the team uncovered many of Nazi Germany's nuclear secrets and captured prominent German nuclear scientists, including Willem Groth and Otto Hahn.
More than half a century after the dawn of the atomic era, nuclear scientists have maintained their staying power as a high-value intelligence target, garnering large sums for their country's nuclear secrets. American and European sleuths have aggressively pursued nuclear scientists in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and beyond in an effort to ensure the safety of friendly countries' nuclear stockpiles or to unlock the key to an enemy's most treasured security secrets.
It remains unclear why Amiri decided to leave. A senior U.S. official told the Washington Post that Amiri possessed valuable insights into Iran's nuclear program and that he was paid $5 million to share them with American debriefers -- money he may no longer be able to access. But the official also suggested the U.S. had got what it needed: "We have his information, and the Iranians have him."
But U.S. specialists who have sought to help other nuclear defectors settle in the United States say the Amiri case highlights the challenges in recruiting foreign scientists. The CIA, they say, has often failed to provide the transplants with adequate career prospects or guarantees for the safety of relatives. Some U.S. officials said Amiri, who claims he was kidnapped by American authorities, may have returned because of concerns over the well-being of his family.
"This is a real problem," said David Albright, a nuclear scientist who heads the Institute for Science and International Security. Albright said that the CIA has provided top scientists that have outlived their usefulness with little support and menial careers. Perversely, he said, the approach has encouraged defectors to ply their handlers with exaggerated claims or to provide their services to the next highest bidder. The most notable case involved Rafid Ahmed Alwan, dubbed Curveball by the CIA, who claimed to have been a chemical engineer in a secret mobile biological weapons plant. His assertion, which provided a critical rationale for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, was later disproved by the CIA's Iraq Survey Group, which was led by Duelfer. "The incentive structure encourages these guys to exaggerate their technical qualifications and their knowledge of what's going on in a secret nuclear program," Albright said. "When they drain them dry, their value drops dramatically."
Khidhir Hamza, a former Iraqi nuclear scientist who defected to the United States in 1994, was considered a valuable catch, prompting the CIA to mount a secret operation to spirit his family out of the country, according to Albright. The following year, a more valuable defector, Saddam Hussein's brother in law, Hussein Kamal, fled Iraq for Jordan, providing detailed briefing of Iraq's weapons programs to CIA and U.N. specialists. The defection prompted Iraq to provide greater details about its chemical, biological, and nuclear programs; it also undercut Hamza's value, who was subsequently set up to operate a BP gas station in Fredericksburg, Va. A couple of years later, Hamza approached Albright for a job and helped provide insights into Iraq's nuclear program. But he was also drawn to the Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, together with whom he played a role in exaggerating the threat of Iraq's nuclear program. "He went on to become their biggest nuclear exaggerator," he said.
The United States also assembled a series of task forces in Baghdad to search for high value nuclear operators. One CIA team quickly located Mahdi Obeidi, an Iraqi expert on nuclear centrifuges, who hid a trove of documents and centrifuge parts in his rose garden. The materials, which were buried in the early 1990s, provided a blue print of Iraq's nuclear program. Obeidi told the Americans that the materials had not been touched since then, and that he had ended his work in the nuclear weapons field.
Albright said that U.S. authorities initially offered to allow Obeidi to defect to the United States, but that he would have to leave his family behind. The CIA relented after CNN approached the CIA for comment on the scientist's predicament, according to Albright. "I can tell you it is very, very difficult to get the U.S. government to approve taking in someone," said Duelfer, who urged the White House to allow Obeidi to flee to the United States. "It always amazed me that it is so hard to get approval to bring in someone who may well have risked their life for us." The Russian illegals, he noted, had little trouble getting U.S. residency. "But that's the way it is," Albright says.
Duelfer said the United States "is a difficult place to adjust, especially if you come from circumstances of prestige and assured income...you can do what you want, but you may go broke." Returning home, he said, is not so unusual. Hussein Kamal was lured back to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein had him executed for his treachery. Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli nuclear technician, was drugged and abducted by Mossad agents in 1986, after telling British reporters about the existence of an Israeli plutonium separation plant. Vitaly Yurchenko, a KGB colonel who defected in 1985, walked away from his CIA handler in Georgetown after being spurned by his mistress, who told him she fell in love with a KGB officer, not a traitor. Like Amiri, Yurchenko told the press he had been kidnapped and tortured.
"We could do better," said Duelfer. "Still, there are reasons we do it badly." He cited the massive costs, political and bureaucratic constraints, and "every imaginable weirdness you can think of from multiple wives and girlfriends to illness and criminal backgrounds."
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ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.