United Nations officials on Monday reacted to the latest leaks about U.S. National Security Agency spying with a reminder to the Obama administration of its legal obligation to respect the "inviolability" of diplomatic missions on U.S. soil.
The German news magazine Der Spiegel reported over the weekend that the NSA, already under fire for reported intelligence gathering on private phone calls and emails around the world, had also infiltrated the U.N. video-conferencing network to eavesdrop on diplomatic missions in New York.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other officials are "aware of the reports and intend to be in touch with the relevant authorities," spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters at the daily news briefing at U.N. headquarters.
The United States, as host country for the United Nations and its member delegations, is obliged by "well-established international law" to respect the privacy and sovereignty of national and multinational missions, Haq said.
"Member states are expected to act accordingly to protect the inviolability of diplomatic missions," Haq said.
Der Spiegel reported in its latest issue that its reporters had analyzed secret NSA documents leaked by fugitive intelligence contractor Edward Snowden that disclosed how the U.S. agency gained access to the U.N. communications systems. The respected German magazine also reported that the NSA, in its clandestine surveillance, had discovered similar spying activity conducted by China that U.S. analysts were able to comb for important intelligence insights.
The magazine laid out in detail how the NSA acquired floor plans and diagrams of the European Union's new diplomatic mission at the United Nations in September 2012 in an operation code-named Apalachee.
Under the 1961 Vienna Convention and other international accords, Haq said, the United States is prohibited from conducting covert operations at the United Nations and its associated foreign missions.
The NSA used traditional wiretapping devices to intercept U.N. communications, Der Spiegel said. It also reported that the agency infiltrated the computer networks of foreign diplomatic missions in Washington, including the EU delegation headquarters, and copied computer hard drives.
The magazine referred to an "internal presentation" summing up an NSA objective to acquire "information superiority," not just in its counter-terrorism intelligence gathering, but also with programs aimed at drug trafficking, organized crime and "traditional espionage targeting foreign governments."