The New York Times copped flak in October for what some perceived to be a watered-down reporting of the WikiLeaks Iraq war logs dump and an accompanying negative profile of WikiLeaks front man Julian Assange. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald led the charge, calling the Times’s reporting and its decision not to highlight America’s blind-eye treatment of Iraqi torture “government subservient” and “sleazy.”
The fire is likely to continue today when critics dig into the Times’s package on the latest WikiDump: 250,000 leaked state department cables showing, among other things, that the U.S. had ordered diplomats to effectively spy on high-level U.N. figures. And yet the Times, once more, makes milquetoast of what should be a brawny, pin-you-back-in-your-seat report. (Previous treatments might explain why WikiLeaks did not give its cables directly to the Times in this latest leak).
The Guardian, which among those publications given early access to the organization’s leaks has so far provided the most aggressive and outraged coverage of the three WikiLeaks dumps, highlighted the development in a report from Robert Booth and Julian Borger titled “US diplomats spied on UN leadership.” The first three paragraphs are full of punch and revelation. Check out the lede (our emphasis):
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.
The reporters suggest—though, to be fair, it is more speculation than evidence-backed reporting—that such information could be used for further spying. “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,” write Booth and Borger. “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 communication, ‘to include upgrades, security measures, passwords, personal encryption keys and virtual private network versions used’.” And Booth and Borger include a graf to explain the potential illegality of the UN spying directive.
The UN has previously asserted that bugging the secretary general is illegal, citing the 1946 UN convention on privileges 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”.