February 27, 2004

UN Spying and Evasions of American Journalism

It's the Media, Stupid.

Norman Solomon, www.commondreams.org: For 51 weeks --
from the day that the Observer newspaper in London
broke the news about spying at the United Nations
until the moment that British prosecutors dropped
charges against Gun on Wednesday -- major news outlets
in the United States almost completely ignored the

Break the Bush Cabal Stranglehold on the US Mainstream
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Published on Thursday, February 26, 2004 by
UN Spying and Evasions of American Journalism
by Norman Solomon

Tony Blair and George W. Bush want the issue of spying
at the United Nations to go away. That's one of the
reasons the Blair government ended its prosecution of
whistleblower Katharine Gun on Wednesday. But within
24 hours, the scandal of U.N. spying exploded further
when one of Blair's former cabinet ministers said that
British spies closely monitored conversations of U.N.
Secretary General Kofi Annan during the lead-up to the
invasion of Iraq last year.

The new allegations, which have the ring of truth, are
now coming from ex-secretary of international
development Clare Short. "I have seen transcripts of
Kofi Annan's conversations," she said in an interview
with BBC Radio. "In fact I have had conversations with
Kofi in the run-up to war thinking 'Oh dear, there
will be a transcript of this and people will see what
he and I are saying.'" Short added that British
intelligence had been explicitly directed to spy on
Annan and other top U.N. officials.

Few can doubt that some major British news outlets
will thoroughly dig below the surface of Short's
charges. But on the other side of the Atlantic, the
journalistic evasion on the subject of U.N. spying has
been so extreme that we can have no confidence in the
mainstream media's inclination to adequately cover
this new bombshell.

For 51 weeks -- from the day that the Observer
newspaper in London broke the news about spying at the
United Nations until the moment that British
prosecutors dropped charges against Gun on Wednesday
-- major news outlets in the United States almost
completely ignored the story.

The Observer's expose, under the headline "Revealed:
U.S. Dirty Tricks to Win Vote on Iraq War," came 18
days before the invasion of Iraq began. By unveiling a
top secret U.S. National Security Agency memo, the
newspaper provided key information when it counted
most: before the war started.

That NSA memo outlined surveillance of a half-dozen
delegations with swing votes on the U.N. Security
Council, noting a focus on "the whole gamut of
information that could give U.S. policy-makers an edge
in obtaining results favorable to U.S. goals" --
support for war on Iraq. The memo said that the agency
had started a "surge" of spying on U.N. diplomats,
including wiretaps of home and office telephones along
with reading of e-mails.

Three days after the story came out, I asked for an
assessment from the man who gave the Pentagon Papers
to journalists in 1971. Daniel Ellsberg responded:
"This leak is more timely and potentially more
important than the Pentagon Papers. ... Truth-telling
like this can stop a war."

But even though -- or perhaps especially because --
the memo was from the U.S. government and showed that
Washington was spying on U.N. diplomats, the big
American media showed scant interest. The coverage was
either shoddy or non-existent.

A year ago, at the brink of war, the New York Times
did not cover the U.N. spying revelation. Nearly 96
hours after the Observer had reported it, I called
Times deputy foreign editor Alison Smale and asked why
not. "We would normally expect to do our own
intelligence reporting," Smale replied. She added that
"we could get no confirmation or comment." In other
words, U.S. intelligence officials refused to confirm
or discuss the memo -- so the Times did not see fit to
report on it.

The Washington Post didn't do much better. It 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 emphasizing
from the outset that U.S. spy activities at the United
Nations are "long-standing." For good measure, the
piece reported "some experts suspected that it could
be a forgery" -- and "several former top intelligence
officials said they were skeptical of the memo's

Within days, any doubt about the memo's "authenticity"
was gone. The British media reported that the U.K.
government had arrested an unnamed female employee at
a British intelligence agency in connection with the

By then, however, the spotty coverage in the
mainstream U.S. press had disappeared. In fact --
except for a high-quality detailed news story by a
pair of Baltimore Sun reporters that appeared in that
newspaper on March 4 -- there isn't an example of
mainstream U.S. news reporting on the story last year
that's worthy of any pride.

In mid-November, for the first time, Katharine Gun's
name became public when the British press reported
that she'd been formally charged with violating the
draconian Official Secrets Act. Appearing briefly at
court proceedings, she was a beacon of moral clarity.
Disclosure of the NSA memo, Gun said, was "necessary
to prevent an illegal war in which thousands of Iraqi
civilians and British soldiers would be killed or
maimed." And: "I have only ever followed my

A search of the comprehensive LexisNexis database
finds that for nearly three months after Katharine
Gun's name first appeared in the British media, U.S.
news stories mentioning her scarcely existed. When
Gun's name did appear in U.S. dailies it was almost
always on an opinion page. News sections were
oblivious: Again with the notable exception of the
Baltimore Sun (which ran an in-depth news article
about Gun and Ellsberg on Feb. 1), mainstream U.S.
news departments proceeded as though Katharine Gun
were a non-person. She only became "newsworthy" after
charges were dropped.

"Mr. Blair's spokesmen were conspicuously silent on
Wednesday, apparently hopeful that the case would
disappear from the public agenda," the New York Times
reported in Thursday's paper. But the case had never
been on the public agenda as far as the Times news
department was concerned.

(Background about the Gun case has been posted at
www.accuracy.org/gun, a web page of the Institute for
Public Accuracy, where my colleagues and I have worked
to make information available about the U.N. spying

Overall, the matter of Washington's spying at the
United Nations has been off the American media map
until February. Whether the major U.S. news outlets
will do a better job on the subject this spring
remains to be seen. But it would be a mistake to
assume that they will.

Although the prosecution of Gun has ended, the issue
of U.N. spying has not. At stake is the integrity of a
world body that should not tolerate intrusive abuses
by the government of its host country.

We can assume that Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a former
Mexican ambassador to the United Nations, did not
speak lightly when he made a strong statement that
appeared in an Associated Press dispatch from Mexico
City on Feb. 12: "They are violating the U.N.
headquarters covenant." He was referring to officials
of the U.S. government.

That statement now resonates more loudly than ever.
With British and American intelligence agencies
working closely together, both have been locked in a
shamefully duplicitous embrace. In the interests of
war, their nefarious activities served as direct
counterpoints to the deceptions coming from 10 Downing
Street and the White House. In the interests of
journalism, reporters should now pursue truth wherever
it might lead.

Norman Solomon is co-author of "Target Iraq: What the
News Media Didn't Tell You."


Posted by richard at February 27, 2004 12:50 PM