Spy vs. Spy

Times and Guardian differ on WikiLeaks "spying" revelations

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”.

Der Spiegel ran a similarly outraged piece, which talks of “Clinton’s wish list” of information from the UN. And many of the same details can be found in a Times report by Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. Expands Role of Diplomats in Spying.” However, the details in the Times report are, once again, watered down and diluted into a story that runs with a different, and softer, angle. Rather than focusing on the directive to spy on UN officials, the Times focuses on the new expectations placed on diplomats and state department personnel to involve themselves in increased intelligence gathering. A story? For sure. But the story here? The Times piece feels like a buried lede in need of a thorough edit.

The United States has expanded the role of American diplomats in collecting intelligence overseas and at the United Nations, ordering State Department personnel to gather the credit card and frequent-flier numbers, work schedules and other personal information of foreign dignitaries.

Revealed in classified State Department cables, the directives, going back to 2008, appear to blur the traditional boundaries between statesmen and spies.

The cables give a laundry list of instructions for how State Department employees can fulfill the demands of a “National Humint Collection Directive.” (“Humint” is spy-world jargon for human intelligence collection.) One cable asks officers overseas to gather information about “office and organizational titles; names, position titles and other information on business cards; numbers of telephones, cellphones, pagers and faxes,” as well as “internet and intranet ‘handles’, internet e-mail addresses, web site identification-URLs; credit card account numbers; frequent-flier account numbers; work schedules, and other relevant biographical information.”

The Times report does provide some context that the Guardian’s lacks, such as how information has been used in the past, and could be used in the future.

The cables… provide no evidence that American diplomats are actively trying to steal the secrets of foreign countries, work that is traditionally the preserve of spy agencies….the more intrusive personal information diplomats are now being asked to gather could be used by the National Security Agency for data mining and surveillance operations. A frequent-flier number, for example, could be used to track the travel plans of foreign officials.

But the revelation that the U.S. sought to gather information about UN officials as senior as Ban Ki-moon is left to the thirteenth paragraph of an eighteen paragraph story. And no explanation is given as to what “biometric information” might be involved—the Guardian reveals it includes DNA and iris scans through cross-referencing cables. Here is what the Times offers on the UN information-gathering.

One of the cables, signed by Mrs. Clinton, lists information-gathering priorities to the American staff at the United Nations in New York, including “biographic and biometric information on ranking North Korean diplomats.”

While several treaties prohibit spying at the United Nations, it is an open secret that countries try nevertheless. In one 2004 episode, a British official revealed that the United States and Britain eavesdropped on Secretary General Kofi Annan in the weeks before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

One could argue that the Times’s choice of angle is a concession to a local audience; that readers will be more interested in expanded roles for diplomats than security threats to the UN. But as other outlets have noted, the U.S. could potentially be in violation of a UN convention—and that is a story that could, would, and should rile, or at least interest, the average Times reader.

And while it’s understandable for the Times to offer, as they do above, past examples of “spying” on the UN for context, it reads as an excuse tacked on to an aside which should have been the lede. Yes, officer, I was speeding, but two miles down the road I saw somebody else speeding. It’s a newspaper’s job to provide context, but not to provide excuses, regardless of whether violations are an open secret or not. The very value of the WikiLeaks dumps is that such open secrets become open to those outside of reporter/diplomat bubbles and that their keepers are held accountable. Some papers appear to be doing this better than others.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.