WikiLeaks V: Spying on the UN — Et Tu, Obama Administration?

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the fifth in the series.

As eye-opening revelations concerning international diplomacy begin to pour out from the Wikileaks document dump, it is increasingly clear that the administration of Barack Obama will have a massive public relations mess to clean up. The latest scandal: Hillary Clinton ordered American diplomats to spy on top officials in the United Nations, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

According to the Guardian, which received leaked documents directly from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange,

A classified directive which appears to blur the line between diplomacy and spying was issued to US diplomats under Hillary Clinton’s name in July 2009, demanding forensic technical details about the communications systems used by top UN officials, including passwords and personal encryption keys used in private and commercial networks for official communications.

It called for detailed biometric information “on key UN officials, to include undersecretaries, heads of specialised agencies and their chief advisers, top SYG [secretary general] aides, heads of peace operations and political field missions, including force commanders” as well as intelligence on Ban’s “management and decision-making style and his influence on the secretariat”. A parallel intelligence directive sent to diplomats in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi said biometric data included DNA, fingerprints and iris scans.

But it doesn’t stop there. Beyond these top-secret intelligence gathering operations, the State Department also

wanted credit card numbers, email addresses, phone, fax and pager numbers and even frequent-flyer account numbers for UN figures and “biographic and biometric information on UN Security Council permanent representatives”.

The Guardian goes on to report that

The operation targetted at the UN appears to have involved all of Washington’s main intelligence agencies. The CIA’s clandestine service, the US Secret Service and the FBI were included in the “reporting and collection needs” cable alongside the state department under the heading “collection requirements and tasking”.

Of course, spying is hardly a new phenomenon in Turtle Bay. The National Security Agency, among other groups, was caught spying on Security Council members in 2003, and was accused of tapping the phone of then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Still, this latest episode will surely complicate matters between the world body and an Obama administration eager to mend the strained relations engendered during the presidency of George W. Bush.

The leaked cables reveal a wide-range of US interest in UN matters.

Washington wanted intelligence on the contentious issue of the “relationship or funding between UN personnel and/or missions and terrorist organisations” and links between the UN Relief and Works Agency in the Middle East, and Hamas and Hezbollah. It also wanted to know about plans by UN special rapporteurs to press for potentially embarrassing investigations into the US treatment of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, and “details of friction” between the agencies co-ordinating UN humanitarian operations, evidence of corruption inside UNAids, the joint UN programme on HIV, and in international health organisations, including the World Health Organisation (WHO). It even called for “biographic and biometric” information on Dr Margaret Chan, the director general of WHO, as well as details of her personality, role, effectiveness, management style and influence.

But cables reveal that the spying orders were not only issued for missions within the headquarters on Second Avenue. The Guardian reports further that

They are packed with detailed orders and while embassy staff are particularly encouraged to assist in compiling biographic information, the directive on the mineral and oil-rich Great Lakes region of Africa also requested detailed military intelligence, including weapons markings and plans of army bases. A directive on “Palestinian issues” sent to Cairo, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Amman, Damascus and Riyadh demanded the exact travel plans and vehicles used by leading members of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, without explaining why.

In one directive that would test the initiative, never mind moral and legal scruples, of any diplomat, Washington ordered staff in the DRC, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi to obtain biometric information of leading figures in business, politics, intelligence, military, religion and in key ethnic groups.

The Obama administration seemingly wanted information on matters of less global strategic import as well. In one example,

a cable to the embassy in Sofia last June, five months before Clinton hosted Bulgaria‘s foreign minister in Washington, the first request was about government corruption and the links between organised crime groups and “government and foreign entities, drug and human trafficking, credit card fraud, and computer-related crimes, including child pornography”.

Washington also wanted to know about “corruption among senior officials, including off-budget financial flows in support of senior leaders … details about defence industry, including plans and efforts to co-operate with foreign nations and actors. Weapon system development programmes, firms and facilities. Types, production rates, and factory markings of major weapon systems”.

So far no comment has been issued from the Secretary-General’s office, nor any of the other agencies affected by US espionage.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.