Global Policy Forum

Speak Into My Attache Case


By Maggie Farley

Los Angeles Times
April 1, 2004

As Cuban Ambassador Orlando Gual remembers it, he and his staff had just had a heated discussion in their mission about health insurance plans when a sheaf of insurance ads suddenly came rolling off the fax machine. Another time, after a debate on where to lease a car, it mysteriously disgorged pages of options. "One time, I heard someone coughing when I picked up the phone. I recommended some cough medicine, and the voice said, 'Thank you very much.' They're human," he said, smiling. "And at least they're polite."

Long before a former British Cabinet minister revealed in February that she had seen transcripts of Secretary-General Kofi Annan's private conversations inside the U.N. about negotiations over Iraq on the eve of war, few at United Nations headquarters assumed that their conversations were secret. After all, the U.N. has been a beacon for spies since the day of its creation. During the 1945 San Francisco conference that set up the world body, U.S. intelligence services intercepted delegates' coded cables to determine each country's negotiating positions, according to historian Stephen C. Schlesinger. President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed to place the organization in New York in part to enable U.S. intelligence agencies to eavesdrop more easily.

At this tiny patch of international territory on the East River, the doors are open to those nations the United States has little access to otherwise — and vice versa. Here, almost anything goes. "It's like a candy store," said a former high-ranking CIA official at the U.S. mission to the United Nations, who asked not to be identified primarily because the CIA has never admitted it has a presence here. "All of our targets are there: the North Koreans, the Russians, the Cubans. You just go across the street and there they are, and you sit in daily meetings with them. Nothing, nobody is off limits."

Annan thinks the U.N. should be out of reach. After Britain's former international development minister, Clare Short, revealed in February that she had read transcripts of Annan's presumably private conversations, his spokesman, Fred Eckhard, reacted with muted anger. Any kind of interference in confidential diplomatic discussions was illegal, he said, and if it was occurring, Annan "would want the practice stopped."

Asked if he thought those listening in on Annan would heed his request to stop, Eckhard shrugged and said, "No."

Nonetheless, he cited three pieces of international law that U.N. legal officers said conferred protection on the U.N. premises and its officials. But those treaties are routinely flouted. The former CIA official said that certain laws "prevent us from too much activity in the U.N." but that the only real prohibition — out of honor — is against spying on Britain, America's intelligence partner. And although Annan's office or other countries may have the right to take legal action, the consensus here seems to be that it's not worth an embarrassing public fight that might upset delicate relations.

The U.S. ambassador must approve any potentially embarrassing intelligence operations at the U.N., the former official said. Eavesdropping on the secretary-general, a particularly sensitive target because of his position and prestige, would have to be approved at a higher level, the former official said. Short's disclosure of the Annan transcripts caused great embarrassment for the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. But though the transcripts came to light in Britain, they would be made and passed along by the U.S., which has traditionally held responsibility for monitoring the United Nations, a National Security Agency expert and the former CIA official said.

"The U.S. has primary responsibility for the U.N.," said James Bamford, the author of "Body of Secrets," an expose of the National Security Agency. "I don't know why, if the U.S. has been bugging the U.N. for 50 years, they would ask the British to do it." U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte and his British counterpart, Emyr Jones Parry, declined to comment for this article, saying they don't discuss intelligence matters. The NSA also declined to comment. Some U.S. ambassadors disapproved of spying under their watch. Andrew Young, who held the post from 1977 to 1979, banned the recruitment of U.N. diplomats to spy on their own countries, a rule that stayed in place until Jeanne Kirkpatrick took the post in 1981, the former CIA official said. From then on, the operations resumed at full speed.

"You have to weigh the benefits against the risks," the former CIA official said. "Ambassadors just don't want to be embarrassed."

At the height of the Cold War, Soviet agents poured into the United States, posing as diplomats or U.N. officials. Several top-ranking officials were Soviet secret agents, says Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general who once worked as a Radio Moscow "correspondent" at the U.N. The most notorious was Arkady Shevchenko, an undersecretary-general in charge of political affairs who became the highest-ranking Soviet diplomat to defect to the U.S., Kalugin says.

The U.S. recruited him as a double agent and left him in place for about two years, until his wild drinking and extramarital activities made him more of a liability than an asset. Officials then expedited his defection. With such unprecedented access to Cold War foes, everyone began listening to everyone, engendering a culture in which diplomats are looking over their shoulders and into their neighbors' secrets at the same time. And proximity helps immeasurably: Diplomatic missions are based in a constellation of office buildings and elegant townhouses near the U.N. headquarters. The U.S. mission is directly across the street.

The arrangement is mutually useful for most here, except those for whom the information flow is one-way, such as smaller countries — and the secretary-general, who does not have the capacity to spy, even if he had the right to, Eckhard said. But even more than gathering intelligence, the former CIA official said, the United Nations was good for recruiting agents. Even if someone didn't have access to important information while at the U.N., the hope was that he or she would return to a prominent position at home and prove useful later. But these days using advanced technology is far easier — and more reliable — than questioning people whose expertise is generally narrow, intelligence specialists say.

Echelon, a satellite listening network run by the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, can intercept e-mail, telephone and fax traffic, and sift it through supercomputers that hunt for keywords at the rate of a million messages a minute, said Bamford, the author. And even for those who know they're being spied on, the technology has become much harder to defend against. "If the NSA really wants to know what you're doing, there's not much you can do," Bamford said.

The air around 45th Street and 1st Avenue, the midpoint between U.N. headquarters and the U.S. mission, fairly crackles with electronic traffic. "This place may have the highest density of activity in the world," said Rob Muessel, the director of TSCM Technical Services, a security firm that helps military contractors and governments around the world protect their secrets.

Fiddling with the controls of a spectrum analyzer, a device that detects electronic signals, Muessel dialed past the spectrum occupied by cellphones — hundreds were on within a few-hundred-yard radius, creating a pattern on the small screen that resembled the New York skyline. Then he homed in on a part of the bandwidth reserved for U.S. government use. On the screen, green needles seemed to jump out of an electronic haystack, then disappeared.

"Frequency hopping," he said. "It's a sign of encrypted devices." A black limousine rolled by his car and suddenly the screen flat-lined. "Wow," he said. "A jamming device." Someone else was as aware as Muessel of the electrified air, and didn't want to be listened to. He found the same frequency-hopping government signals in front of Annan's stately Sutton Place townhouse. "That could be a secure line provided by Washington, though they usually don't give those to foreigners," the former CIA official said. "It could be a listening device. If he doesn't know about it, then it certainly is."

In times of international crisis, the U.N. becomes a significant source for real-time intelligence gathering, and during the months of negotiations before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, it once again took center stage. Six days before the bombs began to drop on Baghdad, six members of the U.N. Security Council sat in a small, stuffy meeting room at the Chilean mission, drafting a last-ditch compromise resolution to avert immediate war with Iraq. And they were nervous.

They had reason. The countries — Chile, Mexico, Angola, Cameroon, Guinea and Pakistan — were the half-dozen undecided nations whose votes could make or break the U.S.-British resolution to authorize war. Because earlier drafts of the resolution had found their way to the American mission, each ambassador was given a copy and told to look at it but not take it out of the room. "I thought, how the hell were they getting everything we were discussing?" said Chile's ambassador at the time, Juan Gabriel Valdes.

The precautions didn't matter. In the middle of the discussions, diplomats began receiving calls on their cellphones telling them to walk out of the meeting. Washington was calling the countries' foreign ministers complaining that the meeting was "an unfriendly act against the United States," said one diplomat present. "That morning, we realized that our friends knew everything," Valdes said. They had prior knowledge of the text, of the meeting, and exactly what was being discussed, while it was being talked about.

Soon after, the Chileans brought in security experts to sweep their mission and homes. The team detected a microphone aimed at Valdes' desk from an adjacent building. There was a bug in his residence. And all the phones at the mission and diplomats' phones were tapped. Mexico's then-ambassador, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, also suspected he was being listened to. Immediately after an evening meeting with envoys from the swing countries, he received a phone call from an American diplomat who told him the U.S. would reject their proposals. "The American mission always knew too well, too quickly, exactly what we were thinking," he said. "And at that point, they didn't want any new cards on the table."

After a memo from the NSA to British counterparts was leaked revealing that the undecided countries had been targets of an "intelligence surge," many ambassadors made light of the disclosure. "It goes with the territory," Pakistan's ambassador, Munir Akram, said with a smile. "It is regarded as one of the privileges of the host country."

Bulgarian Ambassador Stefan Tavrov said that it's almost a mark of prestige for smaller countries to have the U.S. pay such close attention to them. "It's almost an offense if they don't listen," he said. "It's integrated in your thinking and your work." But Gual, the Cuban envoy, and other diplomats acknowledge that life at the U.N. makes one justifiably paranoid. In some meetings, the secretary-general asks his visitors to turn off their cellphones, ostensibly to avoid interruptions but also because they can be used as microphones. Ambassadors routinely avoid talking about sensitive topics on the phone, or use code words when they must. Private discussions are saved for walks outside.

Some even avoid talking in rooms where there are windows, wary of a technology that the former CIA official says is used at the U.N. in which lasers or microwaves can pick up voice vibrations from the glass and translate them into words. Top-secret conversations are held on encrypted phones, or in "bubbles" — secure, soundproof rooms that are built like a bank vault and contain equipment to detect listening devices. Analysts send secret cables home in cipher. "What is normal here is really very abnormal," Gual said.

But some delegates don't even bother to check for bugs, even after it is clear someone is listening. "We haven't looked," Akram said. "If I take one out, there will be another in its place. If we found one, we wouldn't necessarily know who put it there. And if we did, there would have to be a formal reaction, and we don't want to do that."

For a long time, even Mexico didn't look for bugs. Part of the rationale derived from a culture in which eavesdropping is "practically a national sport," Zinser said.

During a phone interview with the former ambassador in Mexico in March, the clicks on the line — a sign of another listener tapping in — nearly drowned out conversation. That week, Mexican newspapers were filled with scandals in which two of President Vicente Fox's main political rivals were taped taking or seeking bribes. In that context, risking a diplomatic incident over common practice seemed strident and unnecessary. But Zinser ultimately decided to lodge a protest last year out of principle. "Why not raise the question?" he said.

"Steps could be taken to guarantee that international legal instruments banning espionage are complied with." Then he laughed wryly. "Of course, technology is so advanced that you can't know if there is compliance until a source reveals that there is not."

Chile, too, quietly but formally protested. Valdes was transferred to his country's embassy in Argentina after the Iraq war in a pragmatic attempt by Chile to resume relations with the U.S. with a clean slate. When he later spoke publicly about discovering the bugs, he was criticized in Chilean papers for jeopardizing the country's relationship with the United States. "I spent 12 years under Pinochet in Chile. I've grown used to being bugged," he said in an interview from Argentina. "We were not surprised by it. At the same time, we weren't deceived by it. It's not just an offense of dignity, but a violation of international law. Some people made light of it, but we don't see it as a game."

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