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Faculty OpinionsRelease Date: May 28, 2004

Indar Jit Rikhye
Major-General (Ret.) Indian Army

David Coleman
Assistiant Professor and Presidential Recordings Program Kennedy Project Coordinator
Miller Center of Public Affairs

Espionage at the United Nations

Recent allegations of espionage at the United Nations have provoked strong reactions, particularly in Britain, where the issue has snowballed into another political challenge to Tony Blair's government.

The most recent commotion concerns allegations by Clare Short, a former cabinet minister who quit the Blair government in protest at the Iraq War, that British intelligence listened in on U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's private telephone conversations.  These allegations likely were not news to Kofi Annan, who is not the first U.N. Secretary-General to learn the walls have ears.

In 1960, at the height of the Congo crisis, U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld began noticing diplomatic echoes of private conversations he had had with a coterie of trusted advisers. Suspecting a leak, Hammarskjöld instructed Indar Jit Rikhye, his military adviser, to investigate. Rikhye quietly contacted an outside specialist to conduct a "sweep" of the Secretary-General's suite. This was a novel idea at the time.

The sweep turned up a listening device planted in a room used by the secretary-general for informal dining and private meetings. It was placed on the back of a painting loaned by a prominent New York museum. Who put it there and when was never determined, nor was any serious effort made to find out.

While Hammarskjöld and Rikhye had their suspicions, they deemed the answers to such questions irrelevant. Hammarskjöld saw no advantage in notifying his staff, let alone making a public fuss. Accepting it as a normal part of diplomatic life, he simply got on with business as usual.

Since its inception at the San Francisco Conference of 1945 when U.S. intelligence intercepted cable traffic from most of the attending delegations, the United Nations has been a magnet for espionage. With representatives from almost 200 countries, the United Nations presents, to borrow a military term, a target-rich environment. And since the organization lacks both the legal clout and the technical and security resources to offer robust counter-surveillance defense, diplomats have had to adapt.

Ironically, in this electronic age, the day-to-day business of the United Nations remains so vulnerable to espionage that diplomats often revert to centuries-old counter-surveillance techniques when tackling the most sensitive issues. Instead of discussing highly secret matters in their offices, they go for a walk on the streets, in Central Park, or out to dine in a restaurant. Since telephone, fax, and email can be easily intercepted, sensitive documents are hand-carried whenever possible. Never assume you are alone, new staffers are told.

Much of the recent commotion, especially in Britain, is fuelled by public indignation that the British and American governments would, as a matter of policy, spy on allies. But this reaction reveals more about the political culture of our times than it does about modern-day diplomacy. So long as surveillance operations can be conducted behind a shroud of secrecy, governments rarely show any compunction in spying on allies. But when such activity is forced out into the glare of the public spotlight, it makes governments squirm. This is what has happened to Tony Blair.

Significantly, there was no public flap in the United States, even though the U.S. National Security Agency was caught red-handed, requesting British help to spy on the six "swing" vote members of the U.N. Security Council in the run-up to the Iraq War. In a role reversal, the practice of monitoring the diplomatic communications of friends and allies has become more acceptable to the American public than the British. Since 9-ll, the underlying mood in the United States has been one of a country at war. If the United Nations blocked U.S. efforts to defend its own security, the NSA's actions were not only accepted, but regarded as prudent. 

The publicity stirred up by Short's allegations of spying in the U.N. have pushed Kofi Annan to respond publicly, but he most likely will react in much the same way that Dag Hammarskjöld did in 1960. Indeed, in the U.N. response one senses more amusement than outrage. Annan knows better than anyone that in the world of diplomacy, the walls will always have ears.

The Authors:

Major-General (Ret., Indian Army) Indar Jit Rikhye was military adviser to UN Secretaries-General Dag Hammarskjöld and U Thant from 1960 to 1969 and has written extensively on the United Nations and peacekeeping.

David Coleman is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. He teaches and writes on foreign affairs.


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Last Modified: Thursday July 01, 2004