U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice has dismissed suggestions that her diplomats are part-time spies, as suggested by the latest batch of documents released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks.
“Let me be very clear — our diplomats are just that, they’re diplomats,” Rice told reporters at the United Nations where she was peppered with questions about the latest chapter in the WikiLeaks scandal. “Our diplomats are doing what diplomats do around the world every day, which is build relationships, negotiate, advance our interests and work to find common solutions to complex problems.”
She didn’t exactly deny the charges of espionage. But the top U.S. diplomat in New York did reject the idea that there would be any diplomatic fallout from the release of thousands of documents obtained by WikiLeaks, some of which have been published by The Guardian and other newspapers.
One U.S. diplomatic cable published by The Guardian shows how the State Department instructed diplomats at the United Nations and elsewhere around the world to collect credit card and frequent flyer numbers, work schedules and biometric data for U.N. officials and diplomats. Among the personalities of interest was U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as were the ambassadors of the other 14 Security Council member states.
There is nothing new about espionage at the United Nations, but it’s always embarrassing when classified documents proving it happens surface in the media.
Most Security Council envoys declined to comment on the WikiLeaks documents as they headed into the council chambers on Monday for a meeting on North Korea. Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, however, told reporters, “Surprise, surprise.”
Churkin should know. One of the diplomats in his charge was implicated earlier this year in a high-profile Russian espionage case in the United States in which nearly a dozen people were accused of being part of a Russian spy ring that carried out deep-cover work in the United States to recruit political sources and gather information for Moscow. The U.S. Justice Department said that an unnamed diplomat at the Russian mission to the United Nations had delivered payments to the spy ring.
And then there was the man known as “Comrade J”, a Russian spy based in New York from 1995 to 2000. Working out of Russia’s U.N. mission, Comrade J directed Russian espionage activity in New York City and personally oversaw all covert operations against the United States and its allies in the United Nations. According to a book about his exploits, Comrade J eventually became a double agent for the FBI.
Nor does the history of U.N. espionage end there. In 2004, a former British cabinet minister revealed that British intelligence agents had spied on Ban Ki-moon’s predecessor Kofi Annan, who fell afoul of Washington and London by opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the Vienna-based U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was also the victim of a phone-bugging operation, according to media reports from 2004. He had also opposed the invasion of Iraq and angered the United States by saying that their intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s alleged revival of his nuclear arms program was not only incorrect but partly based on falsified evidence. U.S. officials pored over transcripts of ElBaradei’s telephone intercepts in an attempt to secure evidence of mistakes that could be used to oust him from his post, the reports said. Not only did they fail to unseat him, he went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.