The Long History of UN Espionage


By Ian Davis and David Isenberg

March 8, 2003

Last Sunday's revelation, published in The Observer, of a 'top secret' US memo, supposedly showing that the NSA has eavesdropped on members of the UN Security Council in recent weeks for insights into their negotiating positions on Iraq, is shocking. But perhaps not for the reasons that might first come to mind.

While the US administration has refused to confirm or deny the authenticity of the memo, it is a sad truth that spying at the United Nations, both at the headquarters and among its various agencies and field missions is as old as the UN itself. The real significance of this story is what this rare public disclosure of such aggressive dipomatic tactics, whether seen as fair or foul, tells us about the atmosphere at the United Nations at a time when the world's diplomats stand starkly divided over the prospect of war on Iraq.

First, the story is clearly embarrassing for the US Administration coming as it does at a crucial moment in its joint efforts with the British Government to secure a second resolution in the Security Council. It will be seen by detractors as heavy-handed and confirm deep-rooted suspicions among many Europeans and others about the direction of US foreign policy under the Bush Administration. It has also upset some of the key undecided UN delegations in the current debate. The Chileans in particular have been vocal about this.

However, the media maelstrom the memo has set off as far away as Sydney and Moscow - but significantly not in Washington - is indicative of a wider malaise in the transatlantic arms control and foreign policy relationship. It says a great deal about the current differences between Bush and Blair's position on Iraq and that of France, Germany and Russia, and why these erstwhile allies have been unable to find a compromise position in Iraq.

To these countries the memo is just the latest example of the Bush Administration's disdain for their concerns. To them, the fact that the US is spying on their diplomats instead of talking with them is proof that the United States does not take them seriously.

Clearly this case also raises complex moral issues on the role of spying by governments. While some people will be hearing about spying at the UN for the first time, there is a long history of it going right back to the founding of the UN Charter.

US academic Stephen Schlesinger has written about how that the United States successfully manipulated the form and content of the United Nations by spying on the signatories to the UN Charter. Washington was able to shape the Charter to its own liking because US officials intercepted coded cable traffic from various capitals to embassies in Washington, DC, London and Paris. When delegates arrived in San Francisco, Washington had advance knowledge of the negotiation positions of all 49 countries. As a result, said Schlesinger in a 1995 article in 'Cryptologia', a scholarly magazine on the science of making and breaking secret codes, the United States was able to "write the UN Charter mostly according to its own blueprint".

Or consider some past examples during the Cold War. Arkady Shevchenko, the highest ranking Soviet diplomat ever to defect to the United States was an Under Secretary-General of the United Nations. The head of the Department of Political and Security Council Affairs, Shevchenko was accused of being a double agent working for US intelligence while spying for the Soviets inside the United Nations in the 1970s. And as recently as 1999 a Russian intelligence officer working undercover at the United Nations was caught spying on the United States and was allowed to leave the country quietly.

At one time, US and Soviet spooks were crawling all over the United Nations - in committee rooms, in the press gallery, in the Secretariat and even in the UN library, which was known as a drop-off point for sensitive political documents.

In 1975 the Church Committee revealed that the CIA had planted one of its Russian-speaking, lip-reading experts in a press booth overlooking the Security Council chamber. His assignment: to monitor the lip movements of Russian delegates as they consulted each other in low whispers at some of the open meetings of the Council.

In relation to Iraq, there have been a number of revelations that the UN weapons inspections were infiltrated by US and UK spies during the 1990s, with a remit that went far beyond the search for banned arms and was carried out without the knowledge of the UN leadership. Last June the United States ordered the expulsion of Abdul Rahman Saad, an Iraqi diplomat to the United Nations over espionage allegations. Reportedly, he had been caught by US authorities trying to recruit American citizens to work for him.

The truth is that intelligence officers from most of the world's nations have used the United Nations as a base of operations. One of the main reasons is accessibility. While a nation can refuse accreditation to a foreign diplomat suspected of being an intelligence agent, the United Nations cannot. The doors of the United Nations are open to all, including spies posing as diplomats, secretariat officials or even journalists.

Is spying a legitimate form of statecraft today? In some limited circumstances, such as to infiltrate terrorist networks, the answer is probably yes. As a general principle all nations ought to be moving away from this reliance on espionage. Greater use of open information would help, as well as improved parliamentary oversight of intelligence agencies. And it would be useful, especially in terms of verifying arms control and disarmament agreements, to promote what Alva Myrdal, Sweden's former Minister of Disarmament in the 1970s, described as "the construction of universal confidence based upon the cumulative process of shared information".

So, while spying is commonplace, sometimes reprehensible, but ultimately necessary on some occasions, the fact that this issue is driving a further wedge between western nations at a crucial time is the real shocking story behind the news. Finding ways to repair the damage to transatlantic relations will be one of the most important issues to deal with long after this latest spying scandal has been forgotten.

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