American Media Dodging U.N. Surveillance Story
By Norman Solomon
March 6, 2003

Three days after a British newspaper revealed a memo about U.S.
spying on U.N. 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 is "timely." Publication of the secret Pentagon
Papers in 1971, made possible by Ellsberg's heroic decision to
leak those documents, came after the Vietnam War had already
been underway for many years. But with all-out war on Iraq still in
the future, the leak about spying at the United Nations could erode
the Bush administration's already slim chances of getting a war
resolution through the Security Council.

"As part of its battle to win votes in favor of war against Iraq," the
London-based Observer reported on March 2, the U.S. government
developed an "aggressive surveillance operation, which involves
interception of the home and office telephones and the e-mails of
U.N. delegates." The smoking gun was "a memorandum written by
a top official at the National Security Agency -- the U.S. body
which intercepts communications around the world -- and
circulated to both senior agents in his organization and to a friendly
foreign intelligence agency."

The Observer added: "The leaked memorandum makes clear that
the target of the heightened surveillance efforts are the delegations
from Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Mexico, Guinea and Pakistan at
the U.N. headquarters in New York -- the so-called 'Middle Six'
delegations whose votes are being fought over by the pro-war party,
led by the U.S. and Britain, and the party arguing for more time for
U.N. inspections, led by France, China and Russia."

The NSA memo, dated Jan. 31, outlines the wide scope of the
surveillance activities, seeking any information useful to push a war
resolution through the Security Council -- "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."

Three days after the memo came to light, the Times of London
printed an article noting that the Bush administration "finds itself
isolated" in its zeal for war on Iraq. "In the most recent setback,"
the newspaper reported, "a memorandum by the U.S. National
Security Agency, leaked to the Observer, revealed that American
spies were ordered to eavesdrop on the conversations of the six
undecided countries on the United Nations Security Council."

The London Times article called it an "embarrassing disclosure."
And 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 America's supposed paper of record. The New
York Times -- the single most influential media outlet in the United
States -- still had not printed anything about the story. How could
that be?

"Well, it's not that we haven't been interested," New York Times
deputy foreign editor Alison Smale said on the evening of March 5,
nearly 96 hours after the Observer broke the story. "We could get
no confirmation or comment" on the memo from U.S. officials.

The Times opted not to relay the Observer's account, Smale told
me. "We would normally expect to do our own intelligence
reporting." She added: "We are still definitely looking into it. It's not
that we're not."

Belated coverage would be better than none at all. But readers
should be suspicious of the failure of the New York Times to cover
this story during the crucial first days after it broke. At some
moments in history, when war and peace hang in the balance,
journalism delayed is journalism denied.

Overall, the sparse U.S. coverage that did take place seemed
eager to downplay the significance of the Observer's revelations.
On March 4, the Washington Post ran a back-page 514-word
article headlined "Spying Report No Shock to U.N.," while the Los
Angeles Times published a longer piece that began by
emphasizing that U.S. spy activities at the United Nations are

The U.S. media treatment has contrasted sharply with coverage on
other continents. "While some have taken a ho-hum attitude in the
U.S., many around the world are furious," says Ed Vulliamy, one of
the Observer reporters who wrote the March 2 article. "Still, almost
all governments are extremely reluctant to speak up against the
espionage. This further illustrates their vulnerability to the U.S.

To Daniel Ellsberg, the leaking of the NSA memo was a hopeful
sign. "Truth-telling like this can stop a war," he said. Time is short
for insiders at intelligence agencies "to tell the truth and save many
many lives." But major news outlets must stop dodging the
information that emerges.


Norman Solomon is co-author of the new book "Target Iraq: What
the News Media Didn't Tell You," published by Context Books

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