U.S. National Security Agency Is Found to Have Spied on U.N. Officials Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

According to an investigative report by the British newspaper The Observer, the U.S. National Security Agency had been engaging in wiretapping and other forms of spying on United Nations personnel, including Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in preparation for seeking U.N. Security Council support for the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Summary of Event

On March 2, 2003, the British newspaper The Observer reported that the United States had been using its National Security Agency (NSA) to tap the phones and read the e-mails of select diplomats at U.N. headquarters in New York City. According to a “top secret” internal memorandum, allegedly written by NSA official Frank Koza and sent on January 31, the agency was to conduct electronic surveillance “particularly directed at the U.N. Security Council Members,” excepting those from the United States and Great Britain. The goal of the surveillance was to provide the George W. Bush administration with information to help U.S. policymakers gain international support—particularly from the United Nations—for its planned invasion of Iraq War Iraq with Britain. The text of Koza’s e-mail accompanied the report by The Observer. [kw]U.S. National Security Agency Is Found to Have Spied on U.N. Officials (Mar. 2, 2003) [kw]U.N. Officials, U.S. National Security Agency Is Found to Have Spied on (Mar. 2, 2003) National Security Agency Short, Clare Blix, Hans Annan, Kofi Koza, Frank Gun, Katharine Iraq War United Nations;spying on National Security Agency Short, Clare Blix, Hans Annan, Kofi Koza, Frank Gun, Katharine Iraq War United Nations;spying on [g]United States;Mar. 2, 2003: U.S. National Security Agency Is Found to Have Spied on U.N. Officials[03270] [c]Espionage;Mar. 2, 2003: U.S. National Security Agency Is Found to Have Spied on U.N. Officials[03270] [c]Government;Mar. 2, 2003: U.S. National Security Agency Is Found to Have Spied on U.N. Officials[03270] [c]International relations;Mar. 2, 2003: U.S. National Security Agency Is Found to Have Spied on U.N. Officials[03270] [c]Military;Mar. 2, 2003: U.S. National Security Agency Is Found to Have Spied on U.N. Officials[03270] [c]Ethics;Mar. 2, 2003: U.S. National Security Agency Is Found to Have Spied on U.N. Officials[03270]

The context of the surveillance was the run-up to the impending U.N. Security Council vote on whether to authorize the use of military force against Iraq. Beginning in April, 1991, under the cease-fire that ended the U.S.-led armed attack against Iraq in response to its invasion of Kuwait, Iraq had been required by Security Council resolution no. 687 to disarm itself of chemical, biological, and nuclear Nuclear weapons;Iraq weapons and to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to verify compliance with that requirement. Through the next several years, Iraq failed to comply fully with that resolution, consistently obstructing the weapons inspectors before expelling them in 1998.

After the September 11, September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., and the subsequent U.S. and British-led invasion of Afghanistan, the Bush administration turned its attention to Iraq. After weeks of negotiating exact language, the Security Council voted 15-0 on September 12, 2002, to adopt resolution no. 1441, which condemned Iraq’s support of terrorist organizations, its grave violations of international human-rights laws, and its failure to comply with past Security Council resolutions, including 687.

In response to resolution 1441, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein agreed to let weapons inspectors return to his country. However, in early 2003, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, Hans Blix, told the United Nations that Iraq was unable to provide evidence and documentation of its destruction of stockpiles of chemical weapons. The United States and Britain argued that Iraq’s breach of resolution 1441 called for further Security Council actions, including authorization of the use of military force against Iraq.

The United States and Britain (along with Spain, which also supported aggressive action against Iraq) encountered resistance from other Security Council members, including the other permanent members, France, China, and Russia. Hoping that those three countries would abstain or vote against the resolution without exercising their vetoes if enough of the nonpermanent members of the Security Council supported military action, the United States and Britain lobbied Cameroon, Guinea, Angola, Pakistan, Bulgaria, and Chile for support. (The remaining members of the Security Council that year were Mexico, Germany, and Syria.) Had those six nations been willing to support a new Security Council resolution authorizing the use of military force, the result would have been no worse than a 9-6 vote.

The perceived need for support from those six nations explains why the NSA was allegedly spying on their delegations to discern their voting intentions, as well as gathering information that could help obtain their support for military action. In the end, when it became clear that the United States and Britain could not secure the support of a majority of the Security Council, those countries did not seek a further resolution authorizing the use of military force. Instead, the United States and Britain initiated armed conflict against Iraq purportedly on the strength of resolution 1441.

In November, 2003, several months after The Observer published its story about the NSA’s spying, British officials arrested Katharine Gun, a translator for Government Communications Headquarters, a British intelligence agency, and charged her with violating the Official Secrets Act. According to prosecutors, Gun received a copy of the NSA memorandum through e-mail from its author, Koza, and proceeded to leak the memo to The Observer. Gun pleaded not guilty and stated that she leaked the memo because she wanted to prevent an invasion of Iraq. Her trial began on February 25, 2004, but she was acquitted by the court when the prosecution declined to present evidence against her. Gun became known as the whistle-blower in the scandal and received worldwide attention and support for her efforts.

The next day, Clare Short, a former British cabinet minister who had resigned her position as international development secretary a couple of months after the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq, disclosed that the British government had helped the NSA spy on U.N. diplomats, including Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Short claimed that she had seen transcripts of Annan’s conversations about Iraq, drawing criticism from British prime minister Tony Blair and others, who said that Short had endangered British national security. Soon after, Short recanted slightly, saying that the transcripts she had seen may have involved Africa, rather than Iraq.

It should be noted that the NSA surveillance of U.N. diplomats, despite its secretive nature and its implementation without warrants, does not appear to have violated domestic law. The U.S. Foreign Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA), which regulates domestic surveillance for foreign intelligence gathering (as opposed to criminal prosecution), requires special FISA warrants only where the surveillance is likely to target communications involving a U.S. citizen; where the communications are between nonresident aliens, however, neither FISA nor the U.S. Constitution requires a warrant for surveillance.

Impact

The revelation of the NSA’s apparent spying on U.N. officials proved embarrassing to the Bush administration, but it did not appear to have affected the outcome of diplomacy after the passage of resolution 1441 in September, 2002. In part, this may be the case because the United States and Britain were far from alone in spying on the United Nations. In late 2004, U.N. officials discovered a hidden listening device in one of its European headquarters’ offices; analysis of the device suggested that it was of Russian or East European—and hence, not U.S. or British—design.

In the United States, it is almost an exaggeration to call the spying incident scandalous. Surprisingly, The New York Times and many other major American newspapers did not even report on the spying, an omission that drew scathing criticism from foreign media outlets. Far more controversy ensued with the revelation nearly two years later that the NSA had also been conducting electronic surveillance, without warrants, of U.S. citizens. National Security Agency Short, Clare Blix, Hans Annan, Kofi Koza, Frank Gun, Katharine Iraq War United Nations;spying on

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abrams, Norman. Anti-Terrorism and Criminal Enforcement. 2d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group, 2008. Provides a good introduction to understanding the mechanics of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and other antiterrorist legislation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bright, Martin. “U.S. Stars Hail Iraq War WhistleBlower.” The Observer, January 18, 2004. The reporter who broke the NSA spy scandal with two colleagues reports on the widespread support for Katharine Gun, the intelligence agency staffer who leaked the Koza memo to the press.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bright, Martin, Ed Vulliamy, and Peter Beaumont. “Revealed: U.S. Dirty Tricks to Win Vote on Iraq War.” The Observer, March 2, 2003. Article that broke the story about the NSA spying on U.N. officials. Criticizes the Bush administration for ordering the surveillance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conyers, John C., et al. Constitution in Crisis: The High Crimes of the Bush Administration and a Blueprint for Impeachment. New York: Skyhorse, 2007. Although decidedly biased against the Bush administration, this rich work explores thousands of sources to document a pattern of corruption leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Includes discussion of the NSA spy scandal.

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