15 DECEMBER 2010


UNITED NATIONS, Nov 30, 2010 (IPS) - The United Nations has long been a veritable playground for spooks of all political stripes to spy on each other - going back to the days of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War in the 1960s and '70s.

A 1975 U.S. Congressional Committee, led by Senator Frank Church, charged with investigating the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) laid bare some of the diplomatic shenanigans at the world body.

The evidence given before the Church Committee revealed the CIA had planted one of its lip-reading experts - specifically a Russian-seeking lip-reading expert - in the Security Council chamber so he could monitor the lip movements of Soviet delegates as they consulted each other in low whispers.

The revelations by WikiLeaks of U.S. espionage - particularly the gathering of information on foreign diplomats and senior U.N. staffers based in New York - have only reinforced the long-held view that U.S. intelligence operations inside and outside the world body are the norm.

According to some of the confidential State Department cables released by WikiLeaks, a July 2009 "classified directive" to U.S. diplomats assigned to the United Nations sought "biographic and biometric information" on the permanent representatives of the Security Council.

The directive also called for credit card details and frequent flyer numbers of U.N. personnel and technical details of the U.N. communication system, including passwords and personal encryption keys.

But these are being interpreted as violations of international conventions to which all, or most, of the 192 member states, including the United States, are signatories.

In 2004, the British intelligence agency was accused of bugging the 38th floor offices of then Secretary-General Kofi Annan and listening to his conversations with world leaders. Unfortunately for the British government, one of its former cabinet ministers went public with a convincing charge that the Secretary-General's "secure" phone and his "secure" sanctum were no longer holy.

Clare Short, Britain's former minister for international development, told BBC that British intelligence agents had routinely spied on Annan -- and particularly so before the U.S. war against Iraq in 2003.

Just weeks before the war, Annan was constantly in touch with several world leaders, including Arab heads of state, in an attempt to stall an invasion of Iraq and find a peaceful solution to the crisis.

"The UK in this time was also getting spies in Kofi Annan's office and getting reports from him about what was going on," Short said. "In the case of Kofi's office, it was being done for some time. I read some of the transcripts of the accounts of his conversations."

And when she herself had a round of talks with Annan behind closed doors, she was thinking: "Oh dear, there will be a transcript of this, and people will see what he and I are saying."

Annan was livid. Everything that a head of state or head of government had confided in him, either in person or over the phone, had been under surveillance by the Brits.

If a room is bugged, said one diplomat, the only safe place to talk is under the shower because that's one way to beat a listening device. But how could the Secretary-General shower with a head of state -- even if it is only to save on water?

Annan strongly felt that U.N. premises, whether in New York or Geneva, are inviolable -- and any country that violates that sanctity is guilty of an illegal act.

In his 1978 book "A Dangerous Place," Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former U.S. envoy to the United Nations, describes the cat-and-mouse espionage game that went on inside the bowels of the world body.

In April 1978, Under-Secretary General Arkady Shevchenko of the then USSR had the dubious distinction of being the highest ranking Soviet U.N. official to defect to the United States - with bag, baggage and a mistress, to boot. Shevchenko, who was head of Political and Security Council Affairs, was accused of being a double agent working for U.S. intelligence inside the United Nations.

Asked about the U.S. efforts to collect information, including classified information, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters Tuesday that "all member states of the United Nations should adhere to existing conventions and treaties respecting and protecting the immunities and privileges of the United Nations."

An Asian diplomat told IPS that any spying on the United Nations is a violation of three international treaties: the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations; the 1947 Headquarters Agreement between the United Nations and the United States; and the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

Ban said: "Basically, I do not believe that anybody would be happy when somebody knows he or she is under watch by somebody."

However, he pointed out that "as Secretary-General of the United Nations, I know my job and my performance is transparent and under constant scrutiny by the international community."

"The United Nations' activities are transparent and we are doing our best efforts to meet the expectations of the international community," he said.

U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters the Secretary-General was informed by the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, about the documents before they became public.

Defending her staff, Rice told reporters Monday, "Our diplomats are doing what diplomats do around the world every day, which is build relationships, negotiate, advance our interests, and work to find common solutions to complex problems."

"That's what they do. And they do it extremely well, with great integrity, with hard work," she said.

"And I want to just underscore that in the complex world in which we live, the work that U.S. diplomats do here in the United Nations and around the world is indispensible to our national security and substantially advance our shared interests in international peace and security," she said.

Samir Sanbar, a former U.N. Assistant Secretary-General and head of Public Information, told IPS that at one time a senior U.S. official at the United Nations had a Soviet apparatchik planted in his department while a senior Soviet official had, in turn, an American trailing him.

Not to be outdone, he said, other countries also played the same game, to the point of being a tragicomedy in the corridors of the Secretariat.

"It turned out to be a farce," said Sanbar, "as some almost specialised in talking to plants in the Delegates Lounge while others addressed the windows of the Delegates Dining Room on the assumption there were Soviet and U.S. listening outposts across the East River."

Perhaps the question about WikiLeaks, he said, is what did the U.S. expect to find out that the current Secretary-General's office would not readily provide?