11 - With media attention focused intensely on the U.N. Security
Council debate over Iraq, the London-based Observer newspaper
broke a major story on March 2: The United States is apparently
engaged in a spying campaign against the diplomatic delegations
from several Security Council nations.
timeliness and relevance of the Observerís scoop, some major news
outlets in the United States have taken a pass on the story.
reported (3/2/03) that the surveillance plan "involves interception
of the home and office telephones and the emails of U.N. delegates
in New York." The paper's report is based on a National Security
Agency memo that directs the agency to increase its surveillance
of Security Council nations in order to monitor their deliberations
over Iraq; a "friendly" intelligence service-- evidently Great
Britain-- was asked to participate in this operation. The principal
targets the surveillance plan is aimed "against" are Angola, Cameroon,
Chile, Bulgaria, Guinea and Pakistan-- nations the Observer dubs
the "middle six," whose votes are considered crucial to an upcoming
Security Council resolution that would authorize the use of military
In the wake
of the Observer article, reports in the Washington Post and the
Los Angeles Times seemed to downplay the importance of the matter.
The L.A. Times headlined its March 4 piece "Purported Spy Memo
May Add to U.S. Troubles at U.N.," while the subhead read: "'Top
secret' document discusses bugging of council members. Forgery
or no, some say it's nothing to get worked up about." The lead
sentence referred to a "long-standing U.S. practice of spying
at the United Nations." The Washington Post's March 4 story, headlined
"Spying Report No Shock to U.N.," was similarly unimpressed with
the Observerís findings.
The New York
Times has yet to even mention the story, now a full week after
it first broke. The Times did, however, find a spying story it
deemed worth of coverage (3/10/03): the fact that the White House
"has asked more than 60 countries to find and expel several hundred
Iraqi diplomats that the C.I.A. and others have identified as
suspected intelligence agents." The Times put the article on its
front page, although it noted that "it is unclear what proof,
if any, the United States [government] is providing to back up
its claims that the diplomats are in fact Iraqi intelligence agents."
news shows have also not aired any reports about the Observer
story either, though that's not to say they weren't initially
interested: According to Salon.com (3/4/03), one of the report's
authors, Martin Bright, "said that he had agreed to interviews
with NBC, CNN, and Fox News Channel-- and that all three had called
and canceled." Salon added that the story "has quickly spread
throughout the world."
The lack of
media interest in the U.S. was partly attributed to the sense
that spying on diplomats is not noteworthy. The prominent reporting
of this story in the rest of the world, as well as follow-up reporting
by the Observer, might suggest otherwise: The paper reported on
March 9 that the U.N. is conducting a "top-level investigation"
of the matter, while Chilean president Ricardo Lagos is demanding
an explanation from British prime minister Tony Blair. The Observer
also reported that an employee at Britain's Government Communications
Headquarters was arrested "on suspicion of contravening the Official
Secrets Act" in connection with the leaked document.
Why is a story
that is having such wide impact around the world being nearly
ignored by the U.S. press? With a pending U.N. vote on military
force perhaps just days away, it would seem newsworthy that the
United States is, in the words of the NSA memo, "mounting a surge"
in order to obtain "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." For some reason, though,
major American media outlets have taken a pass.
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