A long-standing U.S. practice of spying at the United Nations threatened Monday to create new woes for the Bush administration as it battles to win support for a resolution authorizing war against Iraq.
At issue was a "top secret" U.S. memo, published in a British newspaper, purporting to show that the National Security Agency has secretly eavesdropped on members of the U.N. Security Council in recent weeks for insights into their negotiating positions on Iraq.
White House and intelligence officials refused to confirm or deny the memo's authenticity, and some experts suspected that it could be a forgery, or "black propaganda," designed to undermine administration policy.
But current and former U.S. officials familiar with operations of the NSA, the huge U.S. intelligence agency in charge of eavesdropping and code breaking, said they don't doubt that Washington is spying on U.N. delegations during closed-door deliberations on Iraq. Indeed, intelligence experts say the practice dates from the U.N.'s founding in 1945.
"It would be inconceivable to me, with the interest of the nation's leadership on this set of issues, that we aren't using all available means to collect as much information as possible," one former official said.
He said the bugging allegation may spur foreign governments to take steps to shield their communications, cutting off U.S. policymakers from intelligence.
"Not only is it embarrassing, but ultimately it's compromising sources and methods," the former official said. "People will go out of their way to prohibit you from having success in the future."
Several of the Security Council members allegedly targeted for bugging -- including the "middle six" swing votes: Angola, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea and Pakistan -- said the alleged U.S. surveillance revealed the high stakes of the upcoming decision on Iraq.
"If it were true, it would be a very serious matter," Cristian Maquieira, deputy ambassador of Chile, said of the memo.
But some were less than outraged.
Pakistan's ambassador, Munir Akram, said the report would not change the tenor of the negotiations.
"It goes with the territory," he said. "Anyone who thought that it wasn't going on is a bit naive.
"It is regarded as one of the privileges of the host country," he said with a smile.
At least one country seemed flattered.
Bulgaria's ambassador, Stefan Tavrov, said that having the U.S. eavesdrop on their missions was almost a mark of prestige for smaller countries. "It's almost an offense if they don't listen," he said. "It's integrated in your thinking and your work."
A U.S. government official with experience at the world body confirmed that American administrations long have relied on spying at the U.N., and not just during times of crisis.
"We've always done it," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's routine."
In addition to secretly intercepting telephone calls, e-mail, faxes and other private communications of foreign delegations at the Security Council and General Assembly, the official said, the NSA has targeted U.N. peacekeeping operation offices and other potentially sensitive parts of the U.N. bureaucracy.
"It's not dirty tricks," said Jeffrey Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archive, a private research group on intelligence issues in Washington. "It's at worst standard intelligence collection. I'm sure we monitor communications of lots of U.N. delegations."
Indeed, James Bamford, author of two books on the NSA, said U.S. bugging at the U.N. dates to the 1945 conference at the San Francisco Opera House that led to the creation of the world body.
At the time, he said, U.S. Army code breakers secretly intercepted and translated thousands of coded telegraph messages between the foreign delegations and their distant capitals.
"The whole reason [President] Roosevelt was lobbying to put the U.N. in the U.S. was for ease of bugging," Bamford said.
Under government accords, the NSA doesn't spy on Britain, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. All other countries are considered legitimate targets.
The latest allegations concern a supposedly top-secret NSA memo, dated Jan. 21, that was leaked to the London Observer. The paper posted the text of the four-paragraph memo, not an actual copy, on its Web site.
The text indicates that U.S. intelligence is "mounting a surge," or concerted effort, to intercept communications from members of the Security Council, excluding Britain. The goal, the memo says, is to obtain "plans to vote on any related resolutions, what related policies/negotiating positions they may be considering, alliances/dependencies, etc -- 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."
Spokesmen for the NSA and CIA declined to comment on the report Monday. Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, similarly refused to confirm or deny it.
Several former top intelligence officials said they were skeptical of the memo's authenticity. They said it includes some oddly informal phrasing, uncommon abbreviations and unnecessary parenthetical remarks.
Officials also noted the unusual use of the letters GBR, referring to Great Britain. U.S. government documents generally use "U.K." for United Kingdom or "H.M.G." for Her Majesty's Government.
"I've never seen in my time in government the British government referred to as the GBR," said Jeffrey H. Smith, who was general counsel at the CIA during the Clinton administration.
Smith said he had no firsthand knowledge of the memo's authenticity, but he noted that there is a long history of governments' using forgeries to create diplomatic difficulties for others.
"We used to plant so-called black propaganda all the time," Smith said. He told an anecdote from the 1960s, when the CIA forged a supposed exchange of letters between Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev and Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung to foment problems between the two communist countries. The letters were reported in the media, Smith said, but quickly discredited.
One expert said that U.S. law does not prohibit such spying programs and that a court order is not necessary to spy on diplomats.
International law also recognizes that nations engage in intelligence collection against other nations, including the interception and decryption of diplomatic communications, Smith said. "Nobody likes it," he said, "but everybody does it."
Congressional aides said there were no plans to hold hearings on the matter. To the contrary, one aide said, spying on foreign governments is an "unclassified stated mission" of the NSA.
"If they weren't doing it, then we could have a hearing," the aide said.
Times staff writer Maggie Farley at the U.N. contributed to this report.