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.