Despite all the news accounts and punditry since the New York Times
published its Dec. 16 bombshell about the National Security Agency's domestic
spying, the media coverage has made virtually no mention of the fact that the
Bush administration used the NSA to spy on U.N. diplomats in New York before
the invasion of Iraq.
That spying had nothing to do with protecting the United States from a terrorist
attack. The entire purpose of the NSA surveillance was to help the White House
gain leverage, by whatever means possible, for a resolution in the U.N. Security
Council to green light an invasion. When that surveillance was exposed nearly
three years ago, the mainstream U.S. media winked at Bush's illegal use of the
NSA for his Iraq invasion agenda.
Back then, after news of the NSA's targeted spying at the United Nations broke
in the British press, major U.S. media outlets gave it only perfunctory coverage
-- or, in the case of the New York Times, no coverage at all. Now, while the
NSA is in the news spotlight with plenty of retrospective facts, the NSA's spying
at the U.N. goes unmentioned: buried in an Orwellian memory hole.
A rare exception was a paragraph in a Dec. 20 piece by Patrick Radden Keefe
in the online magazine Slate -- which pointedly noted that "the eavesdropping
took place in Manhattan and violated the General Convention on the Privileges
and Immunities of the United Nations, the Headquarters Agreement for the United
Nations, and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, all of which the
United States has signed."
But after dodging the story of the NSA's spying at the U.N. when it mattered
most -- before the invasion of Iraq -- the New York Times and other major news
organizations are hardly apt to examine it now. That's all the more reason for
other media outlets to step into the breach.
In early March 2003, journalists at the London-based Observer reported
that the NSA was secretly participating in the U.S. government's high-pressure
campaign for the U.N. Security Council to approve a pro-war resolution. A few
days after the Observer revealed the text of an NSA memo about U.S. spying on
Security Council delegations, I asked Daniel Ellsberg to assess the importance
of the story. "This leak," he replied, "is more timely and potentially
more important than the Pentagon Papers." The key word was "timely."
Publication of the top-secret Pentagon Papers in 1971, made possible by Ellsberg's
heroic decision to leak those documents, came after the Vietnam War had been
underway for many years. But with an invasion of Iraq still in the future, the
leak about NSA spying on U.N. diplomats in New York could erode the Bush administration's
already slim chances of getting a war resolution through the Security Council.
(Ultimately, no such resolution passed before the invasion.) And media scrutiny
in the United States could have shed light on how Washington's war push was
based on subterfuge and manipulation.
"As part of its battle to win votes in favor of war against Iraq,"
the Observer had reported
on March 2, 2003, the U.S. government developed an "aggressive surveillance
operation, which involves interception of the home and office telephones and
the e-mails of U.N. delegates." The smoking gun was "a memorandum
written by a top official at the National Security Agency -- the U.S. body which
intercepts communications around the world -- and circulated to both senior
agents in his organization and to a friendly foreign intelligence agency."
The friendly agency was Britain's Government Communications Headquarters.
The Observer explained: "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 U.N. headquarters in New York -- the
so-called 'Middle Six' delegations whose votes are being fought over by the
pro-war party, led by the U.S. and Britain, and the party arguing for more time
for U.N. inspections, led by France, China and Russia."
The NSA memo, dated Jan. 31, 2003, outlined the wide scope of the surveillance
activities, seeking any information useful to push a war resolution through
the Security Council -- "the whole gamut of information that could give
U.S. policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to U.S. goals or to
head off surprises."
Noting that the Bush administration "finds itself isolated" in its
zeal for war on Iraq, the Times of London called the leak of the memo an "embarrassing
disclosure." And, in early March 2003, 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 the New York Times, the USA's supposed paper of record. "Well,
it's not that we haven't been interested," Times deputy foreign editor
Alison Smale told me on the evening of March 5, nearly 96 hours after the Observer
broke the story. But "we could get no confirmation or comment" on
the memo from U.S. officials. Smale added: "We would normally expect to
do our own intelligence reporting." Whatever the rationale, the New York
Times opted not to cover the story at all.
Except for a high-quality Baltimore Sun article that appeared on March 4, the
coverage in major U.S. media outlets downplayed the significance of the Observer's
revelations. The Washington Post printed a 514-word article on a back page with
the headline "Spying Report No Shock to U.N." Meanwhile, the Los Angeles
Times published a longer piece that didn't only depict U.S. surveillance at
the United Nations as old hat; the LA Times story also reported "some experts
suspected that it [the NSA memo] could be a forgery" -- and "several
former top intelligence officials said they were skeptical of the memo's authenticity."
But within days, any doubt about the NSA memo's "authenticity" was
gone. The British press reported that the U.K. government had arrested an unnamed
female employee at a British intelligence agency in connection with the leak.
By then, however, the spotty coverage of the top-secret NSA memo in the mainstream
U.S. press had disappeared.
As it turned out, the Observer's expose -- headlined "Revealed: U.S. Dirty
Tricks to Win Vote on Iraq War" -- came 18 days before the invasion of
From the day that the Observer first reported on NSA spying at the United Nations
until the moment 51 weeks later when British prosecutors dropped charges against
whistleblower Katharine Gun, major U.S. news outlets provided very little coverage
of the story. The media avoidance continued well past the day in mid-November
2003 when Gun's name became public as the British press reported that she had
been formally charged with violating the draconian Official Secrets Act.
Facing the possibility of a prison sentence, Katharine Gun said that disclosure
of the NSA memo was "necessary to prevent an illegal war in which thousands
of Iraqi civilians and British soldiers would be killed or maimed." She
said: "I have only ever followed my conscience."
In contrast to the courage of the lone woman who leaked the NSA memo -- and
in contrast to the journalistic vigor of the Observer team that exposed it --
the most powerful U.S. news outlets gave the revelation the media equivalent
of a yawn. Top officials of the Bush administration, no doubt relieved at the
lack of U.S. media concern about the NSA's illicit spying, must have been very
This article is adapted from Norman Solomon's new
Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death." For
information, go to: www.WarMadeEasy.com.