This really boggles me. Revealed by the publication by WikiLeaks of a quarter millon classified diplomatic cables from American embassies, is a massive secret intelligence campaign directed by the U.S. government against the leadership of the United Nations.
This included the gathering of personal details, biometric information (fingerprints and iris scans), passwords, credit card numbers, use of private networks and frequent flyer accounts of the secretary general, permanent Security Council representatives, undersecretaries, heads of agencies, chief advisers, heads of peacekeeping operations and other key top UN personnel.
While of course in the dark side of international relations such a thing shouldn’t surprise anyone, I’m still amazed at the grandiosity of this scheme.
Washington is running a secret intelligence campaign targeted at the leadership of the United Nations, including the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon and the permanent security council representatives from China, Russia, France and the UK.
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.
Washington 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 secret “national human intelligence collection directive” was sent to US missions at the UN in New York, Vienna and Rome; 33 embassies and consulates, including those in London, Paris and Moscow.
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”.
The leak of the directive is likely to spark questions about the legality of the operation and about whether state department diplomats are expected to spy. The level of technical and personal detail demanded about the UN top team’s communication systems could be seen as laying the groundwork for surveillance or hacking operations. It requested “current technical specifications, physical layout and planned upgrades to telecommunications infrastructure and information systems, networks and technologies used by top officials and their support staff”, as well as details on private networks used for official comunication, “to include upgrades, security measures, passwords, personal encryption keys and virtual private network versions used”.
The UN has previously asserted that bugging the secretary general is illegal, citing the 1946 UN convention on priveleges 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”.
The 1961 Vienna convention on diplomatic relations, which covers the UN, also states that “the official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable”.
The emergence of the directive also risks undermining political trust between the UN leadership and the US, which is the former’s biggest paying member, supplying almost a quarter of its budget – more than $3bn (£1.9bn) this year.
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.