Despite all the news accounts and punditry since the New York Times published its Dec. 16 bombshell about the National Security Agency's domestic spying, the media coverage has made virtually no mention of the fact that the Bush administration used the NSA to spy on U.N. diplomats in New York before the invasion of Iraq.
That spying had nothing to do with protecting the United States from a terrorist attack. The entire purpose of the NSA surveillance was to help the White House gain leverage, by whatever means possible, for a resolution in the U.N. Security Council to green light an invasion. When that surveillance was exposed nearly three years ago, the mainstream U.S. media winked at Bush's illegal use of the NSA for his Iraq invasion agenda.
Back then, after news of the NSA's targeted spying at the United Nations broke in the British press, major U.S. media outlets gave it only perfunctory coverage -- or, in the case of the New York Times, no coverage at all. Now, while the NSA is in the news spotlight with plenty of retrospective facts, the NSA's spying at the U.N. goes unmentioned: buried in an Orwellian memory hole.
A rare exception was a paragraph in a Dec. 20 piece by Patrick Radden Keefe in the online magazine Slate -- which pointedly noted that "the eavesdropping took place in Manhattan and violated the General Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, the Headquarters Agreement for the United Nations, and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, all of which the United States has signed."
In early March 2003, journalists at the London-based Observer reported that the NSA was secretly participating in the U.S. government's high-pressure campaign for the U.N. Security Council to approve a pro-war resolution. A few days after the Observer revealed the text of an NSA memo about U.S. spying on Security Council delegations, I asked Daniel Ellsberg to assess the importance of the story. "This leak," he replied, "is more timely and potentially more important than the Pentagon Papers." The key word was "timely."
Noting that the Bush administration "finds itself isolated" in its zeal for war on Iraq, the Times of London called the leak of the memo an "embarrassing disclosure." And, in early March 2003, the embarrassment was nearly worldwide. From Russia to France to Chile to Japan to Australia, the story was big mainstream news. But not in the United States.
Several days after the "embarrassing disclosure," not a word about it had appeared in the New York Times, the USA's supposed paper of record. "Well, it's not that we haven't been interested," Times deputy foreign editor Alison Smale told me on the evening of March 5, nearly 96 hours after the Observer broke the story. But "we could get no confirmation or comment" on the memo from U.S. officials. Smale added: "We would normally expect to do our own intelligence reporting." Whatever the rationale, the New York Times opted not to cover the story at all.
Some days I suffer from outrage fatigue. This is one of them. The New York Times continues to cover itself with shame. How the editors can sleep nights is beyond me.