More Leaks Than the Titanic: The UN and Spies

The news that the US had been spying on Ban Ki Moon and other UN officials is hardly surprising. We have been here before - often. In 203 British whistleblower Katherine Gun revealed that she had been sent an e-mail by a US NSA official asking for help in bugging the United Nations offices of six temporary member states of the Security Council whose votes were crucial to the Anglo-American attempts to win a resolution supporting the attack on Iraq.

The British government dropped its prosecution case against Ms Gun when her lawyers demanded documents that the ministers might have seen questioning the legality of the war. Immediately, Labour Minister Clare Short compounded the furor when she claimed to have seen the transcripts of intercepted private phone conversations with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan - based, she said, on bugs the British had planted in his UN Office.

Despite a UN inquiry and loud protestations senior UN officials ruefully admitted off the record that they were almost flattered that Washington thought they were important enough to be spied upon.

In fact, of course, the intercepts violated the UN Headquarters agreement and almost certainly the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations which the UN's own website says "may claim to be the most successful of the instruments drawn up under the United Nations framework for codification and progressive development of international law." That convention, which includes the UN promised that "the official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable".

The 1946 convention on UN HQ privileges proclaimed that "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 Vienna convention on diplomatic missions which includes the UN "the official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable".

But from its inception, the UN had fatally wounded its own case and as a result it is about as leak-proof as the Titanic. Despite the Charter's provision for an independent Civil Service, it actually hosted an FBI mission in its early years monitoring "unAmerican" activities by US staff members. Ralph Bunche, the black Under Secretary General was summonsed before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. And Soviet staff were all nominated by Moscow and the KGB. Indeed, their salaries and pensions, and those of the Chinese staff after Beijing assumed its seat, were paid directly to their governments.

The UN Library was run by Soviet staff, whose main task was ordering documents that they could photocopy and send back home. Their duties included the Security Council Library, whose filing system I was shown just after they had all gone home. It was a row of filing cabinets half way across the room, with a plateau of Security Council documents just thrown haphazardly behind them. Until then the USG for political affairs was always Soviet and KGB, and his assistant was always American - and CIA.

The great powers were not alone, of course. Assistant Secretary General Giandomenico Picco who was involved in intricate and successful hostage negotiations in Lebanon and the Middle East resigned in 1992 when Secretary General Boutros Ghali refused to exclude him from staff rules requiring him to file travel plans with the Secretariat. He was aware that once it was in the system any number of intelligence services would have his itinerary - with likely fatal results.
Almost the only party at the UN without an effective intelligence service is the UN Secretary General himself - remember that traditionally the head of the UN Security Service has, more often than not, often comes from the NY Police Department. It was never explained how, for example, Paul Volcker's Oil For Food inquiry acquired details of personal phone calls fromUN staff and outsiders alike, and certainly one of their American team members regularly leaked documents from the investigation to hostile legislators in Washington.

Of course, whoever does it, all this spying, is illegal and unethical. But it will continue as long as the UN has any relevance, and indeed since security services spy almost instinctively, even afterwards! The Secretariat's best defence is to be as transparent as possible so that all member states, including the well-meaning innocent ones who do not run surveillance operations have equal access to information. But any high ranking official, like the rest of us in these days of pervasive and intrusive governments, just has to assume that everything we say and do electronically is being monitored. If nothing else, it should bring back the importance of traditional diplomacy since face to face communication has, at least, less chance of being overheard.

Back to the Future!

A decade ago, the UN Secretariat removed all the old manual type-writers from the UN press floor. They should find and refurbish them and emulate the Kremlin by issuing such spy-proof appropriate technology to all the sensitive departments. But then British intelligence used to analyse the noise of the key strokes to decipher cables being typed. Maybe it is best to go for transparency and flood eavesdroppers with so much, mostly irrelevant material, they cannot sift through it. UN prose is so leaden, no intelligent operative could cope with much of it!