UN: You bet we'll be in touch with US over NSA spying

And so the latest exercise in shock, shock! that nations collect intelligence on international relations continues, this time in the pages of Der Spiegel.  The German news magazine published heretofore-classified material which details the efforts by the NSA to fulfill its well-known official mission of collecting signals intelligence (SIGINT) abroad.  Guess what?  They’re pretty good at it:


Obama’s public appearance was aimed at reassuring his critics. At the same time, he made a commitment. He gave assurances that the NSA is a clean agency that isn’t involved in any dirty work. Obama has given his word on this matter. The only problem is that, if internal NSA documents are to be believed, it isn’t true.

The classified documents, which SPIEGEL has seen, demonstrate how systematically the Americans target other countries and institutions like the EU, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna and the UN. They show how the NSA infiltrated the Europeans’ internal computer network between New York and Washington, used US embassies abroad to intercept communications and eavesdropped on video conferences of UN diplomats. The surveillance is intensive and well-organized — and it has little or nothing to do with counter-terrorism.

Excuse me for lapsing into technical jargon here, but … duh. Der Speigel is conflating two different issues here.  The NSA under the Bush and Obama administrations (and Congresses under control of both political parties) justified the use of expanded powers to surveil domestic communications on the basis of counter-terrorism.  That justification has nothing to do with the collection of foreign SIGINT, nor has anyone pretended otherwise.  Counter-terrorism is actually a relative latecomer to the NSA’s purview; its original purpose was to keep tabs on the Soviet Union, its satellites, and its activities everywhere in the world.


Furthermore, everyone already knows this. How an editor let this pass through is an utter mystery:

He gave assurances that the NSA is a clean agency that isn’t involved in any dirty work. Obama has given his word on this matter.

“Dirty work”? Do they mean spying? First, Obama never said that the NSA doesn’t spy, because it clearly does, and does it well.  As mentioned above, his “word” on this matter relates to its domestic activities.  Anyone who thought that the NSA was somehow renouncing espionage needs to explain just what they thought the NSA would do with its time from now on; perhaps choreographing Miley Cyrus’ stage act?

Der Speigel seems unaware of this, and is shocked, shocked to find that the NSA might want to know what happens at the most significant nexus of multilateral diplomacy:

The NSA has its own team stationed at the UN, with each of the specialists disguised as diplomats. A secret crew from Washington regularly comes to town to bolster the team’s ranks before each session of the General Assembly.

But the Americans also eavesdrop wherever possible during the day-to-day — and they have been particularly successful at it for quite some time, as the corresponding department proudly reported in June 2012. In a status report they wrote that they had gained “a new access to internal United Nations communication.”

Furthermore, NSA technicians working for the Blarney program have managed to decrypt the UN’s internal video teleconferencing (VTC) system. The combination of this new access to the UN and the cracked encryption code have led to “a dramatic improvement in VTC data quality and (the) ability to decrypt the VTC traffic,” the NSA agents noted with great satisfaction: “This traffic is getting us internal UN VTCs (yay!).” Within just under three weeks, the number of decrypted communications increased from 12 to 458.

Occasionally this espionage verges on the absurd in a manner that would fit in perfectly with a John le Carré novel. According to an internal report, the NSA caught the Chinese spying on the UN in 2011. The NSA succeeded in penetrating their adversary’s defenses and “tap into Chinese SIGINT (signals intelligence) collection,” as it says in a document that describes how spies were spying on spies. Based on this source, the NSA has allegedly gained access to three reports on “high interest, high profile current events.”


The only real news here is the track record of success the NSA has enjoyed until now.  That’s more of an indictment of the UN’s security systems than it is of the NSA. This is what SIGINT collection looks like.  It’s not a newspaper clipping service.

Nevertheless, the cardinal rule of espionage is not to get caught at it.  Thanks to Edward Snowden, these secrets and others that have no relation to the legitimate issue of domestic surveillance are now out in the open.  That means everyone else has to react to them with requisite outrage, and the UN followed up on cue today:

The United Nations said on Monday it plans to contact the United States over a report that the U.S. National Security Agency bugged its New York headquarters and warned that countries are expected to respect the world body’s diplomatic inviolability.

Citing secret U.S. documents obtained by fugitive former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, Germany’s Der Spiegel reported on Sunday that the United States succeeded in gaining access to the internal U.N. video conferencing system in 2012.

“We’re aware of the reports and we intend to be in touch with the relevant authorities on this,” U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters.

He said well established international law, like the 1961 Vienna Convention governing diplomatic relations, protected functions of the United Nations, diplomatic missions and other international organizations.

“Therefore member states are expected to act accordingly to protect the inviolability of diplomatic missions,” Haq said.


Piercing the “inviolability of diplomatic missions” is the basic job of every nation’s intelligence services.  They may as well ask everyone to breathe water for the next month to offset carbon emissions.  (Maybe I shouldn’t give them any ideas.)

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