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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Spy Game Part of Life at the UN

UNITED NATIONS -- As Cuban Ambassador Orlando Gual remembers it, he and his staff had just had a heated discussion in their mission about health insurance plans when a sheaf of insurance ads suddenly came rolling off the fax machine. Another time, after a debate on where to lease a car, it mysteriously disgorged pages of options.

"One time, I heard someone coughing when I picked up the phone. I recommended some cough medicine, and the voice said, 'Thank you very much.' They're human," he said, smiling. "And at least they're polite."

Long before a former British Cabinet minister revealed in February that she had seen transcripts of Secretary-General Kofi Annan's private conversations inside the UN about negotiations over Iraq on the eve of war, few at United Nations headquarters assumed that their conversations were secret.

After all, the UN has been a beacon for spies since the day of its creation. During the 1945 San Francisco conference that set up the world body, U.S. intelligence services intercepted delegates' coded cables to determine each country's negotiating positions, according to historian Stephen Schlesinger. President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed to place the organization in New York in part to enable U.S. intelligence agencies to eavesdrop more easily.

At this tiny patch of international territory on New York's East River, the doors are open to those nations the United States has little access to otherwise -- and vice versa. Here, almost anything goes.

"It's like a candy store," said a former high-ranking CIA official at the U.S. mission to the United Nations, who asked not to be identified primarily because the CIA has never admitted it has a presence here. "All of our targets are there: the North Koreans, the Russians, the Cubans. You just go across the street and there they are, and you sit in daily meetings with them. Nothing, nobody is off limits."

Annan thinks the UN should be out of reach. After Britain's former international development minister, Clare Short, revealed in February that she had read transcripts of Annan's presumably private conversations, his spokesman, Fred Eckhard, reacted with muted anger. Any kind of interference in confidential diplomatic discussions was illegal, he said, and if it was occurring, Annan "would want the practice stopped."

Asked if he thought those listening in on Annan would heed his request to stop, Eckhard shrugged and said, "No."

The U.S. ambassador must approve any potentially embarrassing intelligence operations at the UN, the former official said.

Eavesdropping on the secretary-general, a particularly sensitive target because of his position and prestige, would have to be approved at a higher level, the former official said.

Short's disclosure of the Annan transcripts caused great embarrassment for the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. But though the transcripts came to light in Britain, they would be made and passed along by the United States, which has traditionally held responsibility for monitoring the United Nations, a National Security Agency expert and the former CIA official said.

"The United States has primary responsibility for the UN," said James Bamford, the author of "Body of Secrets," an expose of the National Security Agency. "I don't know why, if the United States has been bugging the UN for 50 years, they would ask the British to do it."

Some U.S. ambassadors disapproved of spying under their watch. Andrew Young, who held the post from 1977 to 1979, banned the recruitment of UN diplomats to spy on their own countries, a rule that stayed in place until Jeanne Kirkpatrick took the post in 1981, the former CIA official said. From then on, the operations resumed at full speed.

"You have to weigh the benefits against the risks," the former CIA official said. "Ambassadors just don't want to be embarrassed."

At the height of the Cold War, Soviet agents poured into the United States, posing as diplomats or UN officials. Several top-ranking officials were Soviet secret agents, says Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general who once worked as a Radio Moscow "correspondent" at the UN.

The most notorious was Arkady Shevchenko, an undersecretary-general in charge of political affairs who became the highest-ranking Soviet diplomat to defect to the United States, Kalugin says.

The United States recruited him as a double agent and left him in place for about two years, until his wild drinking and extramarital activities made him more of a liability than an asset. Officials then expedited his defection.