UN General Assembly Is 'Super Bowl of Espionage,' Ex-Spy Says

(UN Photo/Manuel Elias)

(UN Photo/Manuel Elias)

Just a few days. Hundreds of diplomats, senior officials, translators and hangers-on from all over the world. Dozens of intelligents agents hungry to recruit any one of them as a source, eavesdrop on their communications or pilfer some confidential information. Dozens more counterintelligence officers trying to keep those agents away. Some spies just out to recruit other spies. The United Nations General Assembly is, as a former secret squirrel put it, "the Super Bowl of espionage."

"For an ex-spook, it's pretty obvious" why the UNGA is a fertile ground for spying, former longtime CIA officer Bob Baer told Code and Dagger. "The U.N. is a fishbowl. New York is a fishbowl... Where are those people going to be out of their element other than New York? They're out partying. They're going to dinners and they're accessible... This is your chance."

As President Donald Trump prepares to make his first address to the General Assembly today, Baer said spy agencies the world over would have been "gearing up" for the event for a while now.

Though treaties are supposed to prohibit spying at the U.N., the storied organization has been a magnet for international dirty tricks for decades, according to a Code and Dagger review of official documents and media reports. 

Even in its infancy, the U.S. is alleged to have spied on virtually every participating nation in order to find out their positions on various issues.

In the 1950s the CIA trained Russian speakers in lip reading in order to try and steal secrets straight from the mouths of whispering Soviet officials at U.N. meetings. A confidential memo in the CIA's archives from June 1952 briefly describes "Project 52-34, Lip Readers." 

"Two outstanding Russian language students have been nominated for consideration as potential lip readers," the memo says (PDF). "The Chief, Language Services Division believes it feasible to teach lip reading to non-deaf personnel by sticking cotton in their ears and that they will be able to lip read in a foreign language."


Another CIA memo indicates that by the next month a candidate had been packed off to "Gallaudet" to complete a course there. Gallaudet is likely a reference to Gallaudet University, a federally chartered school for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

As to whether the lip readers were ever used, a 1986 Boston Globe article, also in the CIA archives (PDF), quotes former CBS correspondent Daniel Schorr as saying CBS permitted "a CIA guy in our booth so that he could try to lip-read the private conversations" when then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev came to the U.N. (There are reports that the Senate's Church Committee investigative findings in the mid-1970s reference the CIA lip readers, but a keyword search through those files by Code and Dagger was unsuccessful, if not highly entertaining.)

In 1974 then-Attorney General Ramsey Clark told lawmakers he had denied an FBI request to put a wiretap on an employee of the U.N. Secretariat and a member of the Tanzanian mission to the U.N., according to a Church Committee report (PDF).

The next year the U.S. pulled off an intelligence coup with the recruitment of high-ranking Soviet diplomat and Under Secretary General of the U.N. Arkady Shevchenko. He passed along intelligence for more than two years before defecting to the U.S.

A little over a decade later, in 1986, the FBI arrested U.N. employee Gennadi Fyodorovich Zakharov, a Soviet national, on a subway platform in Queens, New York on charges of espionage.

At the time, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan took the opportunity to rap the Soviets and declare, somewhat hollowly at this point, "Misusing the United Nations for purposes of espionage does a grave disservice to this organization. And the world expects better."

If for some reason the world did expect better, those hopes have probably flown out the window in the last 20 years following a raft of increasingly public incidents.

In 2004 a British official claimed that the United Kingdom's spy services had listened in on the conversations of then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan the year prior.

In 2010 the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks revealed State Department cables that instructed the U.S. staff at the U.N. what their information-gathering priorities were, like the "biographic and biometric information on ranking North Korean diplomats."

The picture of U.S. spying on the U.N. delegations came into even sharper focus in 2013 when secret documents provided by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden reportedly indicated the NSA had bugged the U.N. headquarters and were apparently able to spy on the internal video conferencing system.

In response to an international outcry, then-President Barack Obama ordered the NSA to back off the U.N.

But that doesn't mean the U.S. intelligence community -- or any other foreign spy service -- is likely to give the General Assembly a pass this year.

"Going to New York right now, you're going to learn a lot of s**t," Baer said. "It's a circus, the three-ring circus of spying."

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