Raw Story is out with a report today that could further complicate life for the Bush administration, and one that also does not reflect well on the United States mainstream media. The story harkens back to early 2003 when the Bush administration was desperately trying to coax the United Nations into legitimizing its plans to go to war with Iraq (at the urging of Tony Blair, which we now know, thanks to the Downing Street memos and minutes). In order to determine how the delegates were leaning on a UN resolution that would have given the U.S. a green light, the Bush administration decided, according to Raw Story, to “step up” efforts by the NSA to eavesdrop, via wiretaps and e-mail intercepts, on members of the UN Security Council. But the story, as Raw Story acknowledges, is not new. It caused a firestorm at the time in the corridors of the United Nations and was front-page news in the European press. But here in the United States, where a cowered media seemed resigned, even eager, to going to war, the story was almost entirely ignored.

It seems only natural, in the wake of daily revelations about warrantless NSA wiretaps authorized by the Bush administration (President Bush brands the revelations, not the spying, “shameful”), that the media would revisit this largely ignored at the time 2003 story involving possibly illegal NSA wiretaps . Having ignored the implications in 2003, it seems hardly surprising that we are now reminded of them by Raw Story rather than by The Washington Post or The New York Times.

Raw Story’s headline today reads:

Rice authorized National Security Agency to spy on UN Security Council in run-up to war, former officials say

According to Raw Story:

President Bush and other top officials in his administration used the National Security Agency to secretly wiretap the home and office telephones and monitored private email accounts of members of the United Nations Security Council in early 2003 to determine how foreign delegates would vote on a U.N. resolution that paved the war for the U.S.-led war in Iraq, NSA documents show.

Two former NSA officials familiar with the agency’s campaign to spy on U.N. members say then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice authorized the plan at the request of President Bush, who wanted to know how delegates were going to vote. Rice did not immediately return a call for comment.

The former officials said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also participated in discussions about the plan, which involved “stepping up” efforts to eavesdrop on diplomats.

A spokeswoman at the White House who refused to give her name also would not comment, and pointed to a March 3, 2003 press briefing by former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer when questions about U.N. spying were first raised.

“As a matter of long-standing policy, the administration never comments on anything involving any people involved in intelligence,” Fleischer said. “So I’m not saying yes and I’m not saying no.”

Disclosure of the wiretaps and the monitoring of U.N. members’ email came on the eve of the Iraq war in the British-based Observer. The leak — which the paper acquired in the form of an email via a British translator — came amid a U.S. push urging U.N. members to vote in favor of a resolution that said Iraq was in violation of U.N. resolution 1441, asserting that it had failed to rid the country of weapons of mass destruction.

…One intelligence source who spoke to RAW STORY said top White House officials and some Republican members of Congress had debated in December 2002 whether to step up the surveillance of U.N. officials to include eavesdropping on home telephone and personal email accounts. Some feared that in the event it was discovered, it would further erode relations between the U.S. and the U.N.

The source added that U.S. spying on the U.N. isn’t new.

“It’s part of the job,” the intelligence source said. “Everyone knows it’s being done.”
Eavesdropping on U.N. diplomats is authorized under the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Services Act. However, it’s still considered a violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which says that “The receiving state shall permit and protect free communication on the part of the mission for all official purposes… The official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable.”

According to one former official, “The administration pushed the envelope by tapping their home phones.”

The implications of this story are enormous. If it was indeed authorized by then National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice this implicates the top reaches of the administration in illegal activity. The involvement of the NSA further makes a mockery of the claims by the Bush administration and its apologists that the warrrantless NSA intercepts were a necessary weapon in the “war on terror.” This was politics, pure and simple, authorized by top administration officials, and carried out, in violation of the law, by The National Security Agency. And the mainstream media, by ignoring the story, failed the American people, as it has time and time again in recent years.

As I said in the introduction, this is not a new story. Virtually all of it was known, and reported upon by the media before we went to war.

According to Raw Story, a memo written by Frank Koza of the NSA on January 31, 2003 “was leaked to a handful of media outlets in the U.S. {emphasis added} and U.K. by Katharine Tersea Gun, a former translator for British intelligence.” This memo was hardly an effort to stem terrorists (Read the memo here).

So the U.S. media had the story, but it was the British Observer that broke it on March 2, 2003: “Revealed: US dirty tricks to win vote on Iraq war — Secret document details American plan to bug phones and emails of key Security Council members”

The United States is conducting a secret ‘dirty tricks’ campaign against UN Security Council delegations in New York as part of its battle to win votes in favour of war against Iraq.
Details of the aggressive surveillance operation, which involves interception of the home and office telephones and the emails of UN delegates in New York, are revealed in a document leaked to The Observer.

The disclosures were made in a memorandum written by a top official at the National Security Agency… and circulated to both senior agents in his organisation and to a friendly foreign intelligence agency asking for its input.

The memo describes orders to staff at the agency, whose work is clouded in secrecy, to step up its surveillance operations ‘particularly directed at… UN Security Council Members… to provide up-to-the-minute intelligence for Bush officials on the voting intentions of UN members regarding the issue of Iraq.

The leaked memorandum makes clear that the target of the heightened surveillance efforts are the delegations from Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Mexico, Guinea and Pakistan at the UN headquarters in New York – the so-called ‘Middle Six’ delegations whose votes are being fought over by the pro-war party, led by the US and Britain, and the party arguing for more time for UN inspections, led by France, China and Russia.

The memo is directed at senior NSA officials and advises them that the agency is ‘mounting a surge’ aimed at gleaning information not only on how delegations on the Security Council will vote on any second resolution on Iraq, but also ‘policies’, ‘negotiating positions’, ‘alliances’ and ‘dependencies’ – the ‘whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favourable to US goals or to head off surprises’.

Dated 31 January 2003, the memo was circulated four days after the UN’s chief weapons inspector Hans Blix produced his interim report on Iraqi compliance with UN resolution 1441.
It was sent by Frank Koza, chief of staff in the ‘Regional Targets’ section of the NSA, which spies on countries that are viewed as strategically important for United States interests.
Koza specifies that the information will be used for the US’s ‘QRC’ – Quick Response Capability – ‘against’ the key delegations.

Suggesting the levels of surveillance of both the office and home phones of UN delegation members, Koza also asks regional managers to make sure that their staff also ‘pay attention to existing non-UN Security Council Member UN-related and domestic comms [office and home telephones] for anything useful related to Security Council deliberations’…

Disclosure of the US operation comes in the week that Blix will make what many expect to be his final report to the Security Council.

It also comes amid increasingly threatening noises from the US towards undecided countries on the Security Council who have been warned of the unpleasant economic consequences of standing up to the US.

Sources in Washington familiar with the operation said last week that there had been a division among Bush administration officials over whether to pursue such a high-intensity surveillance campaign with some warning of the serious consequences of discovery.

The existence of the surveillance operation, understood to have been requested by President Bush’s National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice {emphasis added}, is deeply embarrassing to the Americans in the middle of their efforts to win over the undecided delegations.

The language and content of the memo were judged to be authentic by three former intelligence operatives shown it by The Observer. We were also able to establish that Frank Koza does work for the NSA and could confirm his senior post in the Regional Targets section of the organisation.

The NSA main switchboard put The Observer through to extension 6727 at the agency which was answered by an assistant, who confirmed it was Koza’s office. However, when The Observer asked to talk to Koza about the surveillance of diplomatic missions at the United Nations, it was then told ‘You have reached the wrong number’.

On protesting that the assistant had just said this was Koza’s extension, the assistant repeated that it was an erroneous extension, and hung up.

While many diplomats at the UN assume they are being bugged, the memo reveals for the first time the scope and scale of US communications intercepts targeted against the New York-based missions.

The disclosure comes at a time when diplomats from the countries have been complaining about the outright ‘hostility’ of US tactics in recent days to persuade then to fall in line, including threats to economic and aid packages.

The operation appears to have been spotted by rival organisations in Europe. ‘The Americans are being very purposeful about this,’ said a source at a European intelligence agency when asked about the US surveillance efforts.

The involvement of Donald Rumsfeld adds a new wrinkle, but other than that The Observer had virtually the entire story, right down to Condoleeza Rice having authorized the surveillance (and they even reported a week later that “American intelligence experts told The Observer that a decision of this kind would also have involved Donald Rumsfeld, CIA director George Tenet and NSA chief General Michael Hayden. President Bush himself would have been informed at one of the daily intelligence briefings held every morning at the White House”).

As Fairness and Accuracy in Media (FAIR) noted at the time, the reaction of the U.S. media to this shocking story was underwhelming, to say the least. The New York Times ignored the story completely. NBC, CNN and FOX News all scheduled and then cancelled interviews with one of the authors, ignoring the story instead. The Washington Post ridiculed the revelations in a page 17 story “Spying Report No Shock To U.N. that inaccurately suggested that “Security Council diplomats today shrugged off a British newspaper report that the super-secretive National Security Agency had ordered an eavesdropping ‘surge’ on their telephones to determine their voting positions on a resolution that would pave the way for a U.S.-led war against Iraq.” The article went on to downplay the Observer revelations, indicating that this kind of eaves-dropping goes on all the time and is not news, quoting one diplomat: “You’d have to be very naive to be surprised.” The Washington Times and The Drudge Report meanwhile tried to brand the leaked memo a fake.

Not every one took the story so lightly. Media Commentator Norman Solomon interviewed Daniel Ellsberg — of Pentagon Papers fame — about it at the time. Ellsberg responded that “This leak is more timely and potentially more important than the Pentagon Papers.” Describing the media coverage, Solomon wrote:

…The London Times article called it an “embarrassing disclosure.” And the embarrassment was nearly worldwide. From Russia to France to Chile to Japan to Australia, the story was big mainstream news. But not in the United States.

Several days after the “embarrassing disclosure,” not a word about it had appeared in America’s supposed paper of record. The New York Times – the single most influential media outlet in the United States – still had not printed anything about the story. How could that be?
“Well, it’s not that we haven’t been interested,” New York Times deputy foreign editor Alison Smale said Wednesday night, nearly 96 hours after the Observer broke the story. “We could get no confirmation or comment” on the memo from U.S. officials.

The Times opted not to relay the Observer’s account, Smale told me. “We would normally expect to do our own intelligence reporting.” She added: “We are still definitely looking into it. It’s not that we’re not.”

Belated coverage would be better than none at all. But readers should be suspicious of the failure of the New York Times to cover this story during the crucial first days after it broke. At some moments in history, when war and peace hang in the balance, journalism delayed is journalism denied…

Contrary to the Washington Post’s inference that this was a tempest in a teapot, it caused a furor at the UN and around the world, as the Observer reported on March 9, 2003 (while the U.S. media continued to avoid the story like the plague):

UN launches inquiry into American spying

The United Nations has begun a top-level investigation into the bugging of its delegations by the United States, first revealed in The Observer last week.

Sources in the office of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan confirmed last night that the spying operation had already been discussed at the UN’s counter-terrorism committee and will be further investigated.

The news comes as British police confirmed the arrest of a 28-year-old woman working at the top secret Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) on suspicion of contravening the Official Secrets Act.

The revelations of the spying operation have caused deep embarrassment to the Bush administration at a key point in the sensitive diplomatic negotiations to gain support for a second UN resolution authorising intervention in Iraq.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were both challenged about the operation last week, but said they could not comment on security matters.

The operation is thought to have been authorised by US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, but American intelligence experts told The Observer that a decision of this kind would also have involved Donald Rumsfeld, CIA director George Tenet and NSA chief General Michael Hayden.
President Bush himself would have been informed at one of the daily intelligence briefings held every morning at the White House.

Attention has now turned to the foreign intelligence agency responsible for the leak. It is now believed the memo was sent out via Echelon, an international surveillance network set up by the NSA with the cooperation of GCHQ in Britain and similar organisations in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

…The Observer story caused a political furore in Chile, where President Ricardo Lagos demanded an immediate explanation of the spying operation. The Chilean public is extremely sensitive to reports of US ‘dirty tricks’ after decades of American secret service involvement in the country’s internal affairs. In 1973 the CIA supported a coup that toppled the democratically-elected socialist government of Salvador Allende and installed the dictator General Augusto Pinochet.

President Lagos spoke on the telephone with Prime Minister Tony Blair about the memo last Sunday, immediately after the publication of the story, and twice again on Wednesday. Chile’s Foreign Minister Soledad Alvear also raised the matter with Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

Chile’s ambassador to Britain Mariano Fern├índez told The Observer: ‘We cannot understand why the United States was spying on Chile. We were very surprised. Relations have been good with America since the time of George Bush Snr.’ He said that the position of the Chilean mission to the UN was published in regular diplomatic bulletins, which were public documents openly available.

While the bugging of foreign diplomats at the UN is permissible under the US Foreign Intelligence Services Act, it is a breach of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, according to one of America’s leading experts on international law, Professor John Quigley of Ohio University.

He says the convention stipulates that: ‘The receiving state shall permit and protect free communication on the part of the mission for all official purposes… The official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable.’

One of the supreme ironies of this story is that the Washington Post, while clearly showing abominable judgment by blacking out this story, was pretty close to the mark when it suggested that surveillance of United Nations officials is commonplace. In 2004 it was revealed by former Tony Blair cabinet minister Clare Short that the UK had spied on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan during the run up to the Iraq war. Blair, in a reaction similar to the one George W. Bush would later articulate when the New York Times revealed the current NSA wiretap scandal, branded Short’s disclosures as “deeply irresponsible” and said that Short was “undermining British security.” (Short denied putting the UK or its security services at risk, and accused Blair of using “pompous” distraction tactics). The Short disclosures received little play from the U.S. mainstream media.

A few days later the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) revealed that British or U.S. intelligence had also “monitored former United Nations chief weapons inspector Hans Blix’s mobile phone whenever he was in Iraq,” according to sources in Australia’s Office of National Assessments who had read the transcripts. That too got little play in the U.S. mainstream media.

It is to be hoped that both the mainstream media and the Congress will now revisit the NSA surveillance of United Nations officials — for clearly political ends — during the run-up to war. It appears to have been in violation of not only U.S. law, but also a breach of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The president has justified authorizing NSA surveillance without warrants as being necessary to protect U.S. citizens from the terrorist threat. Does Mr. Bush consider the UN Security Council to be a haven for terrorists?

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