UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The ambassador to the United Nations on Monday dismissed the notion that U.S. diplomats in New York were actively engaged in espionage work as suggested by leaked State Department cables.
“Let me be very clear — our diplomats are just that, they’re diplomats,” Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters when asked about confidential U.S. documents released to media outlets by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks.
“Our diplomats are doing what diplomats do around the world every day, which is build relationships, negotiate, advance our interests and work to find common solutions to complex problems,” she said.
Rice declined to comment on the details of the cables, which were published Sunday by The Guardian of Britain, The New York Times and other newspapers.
According to one cable, the State Department asked U.S. envoys at U.N. headquarters and elsewhere to procure credit card and frequent flyer numbers, mobile phone numbers, email addresses, passwords and other confidential data from top U.N. officials and foreign diplomats.
One of the personalities of interest in the cable was U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Rice suggested Washington was not worried that the document release would hamper her diplomats’ ability to do their jobs.
“I am confident that their ability to do so will endure and indeed strengthen,” she said.
Apart from instructions to gather credit card, biometric and other data on diplomats and U.N. officials, the requested information appeared to be limited to routine assessments of member states’ positions on issues like Iran, Sudan or Iraq.
It is not the first time that documents suggesting that the United States or other nations have engaged in espionage at the world body have reached the media. U.N. diplomats admit privately that spying is commonplace at U.N. headquarters in New York and at other U.N. centers around the world.
In 2004, several diplomats from a Western nation showed Reuters what they said were transcripts of intercepted telephone conversations between the former U.N. nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei and the Iranian ambassador to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency.
The diplomats insisted that the transcripts showed ElBaradei was overstepping his authority in his relationship with Iran, which the United States, Israel and European Union members suspect is developing atomic weapons under cover of a civilian weapons program.
Later, The Washington Post reported that U.S. officials had been poring over transcripts of intercepted phone conversations of ElBaradei to find evidence of mistakes that could be used to force his ouster as IAEA director-general
ElBaradei fell afoul of the administration of President George W. Bush before the Iraq war, when the Egyptian lawyer who would later win the Nobel Peace Prize said U.S. intelligence suggesting Iraq had revived its nuclear weapons program was incorrect.
In the end, the wiretaps failed to paint ElBaradei in a negative light and Washington’s bid to prevent him from securing a third term at the helm of the IAEA collapsed.
In 2004 media organizations reported that the offices of then U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had been bugged by British intelligence.
Editing by Doina Chiacu