Spy games come to New York for UN General Assembly
Even before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad finished his incendiary rant, U.S. diplomats marched out of the cavernous U.N. hall in protest and were ready with a written statement condemning his comments.
It was as if the U.S. knew exactly what Ahmadinejad intended to say.
The walkout hinted at one of the well-known but seldom spoken truths about the United Nations: The international organization, which was founded in the name of peace and security, is also a hotbed of spying and clandestine operations, where someone might very well be listening to your conversations and monitoring your emails — or perhaps reading your speeches in advance.
The start of the General Assembly each year is the Super Bowl of the U.N. spy games.
Foreign leaders descend upon New York with entourages of aides and security officers. Many have not been dispatched to practice diplomacy. They are intelligence officers, and they've come instead to recruit agents in hotels and quiet cafes around the city. In their line of work, trickery and deception trump political niceties.
While the diplomats inside the United Nations are often making headlines, FBI agents are chasing spies around the city. Justice Department lawyers are asking judges to approve wiretaps. And the CIA is searching for foreigners who might be persuaded to commit treason.
All this makes for a frenzied few weeks, especially for the FBI's Manhattan field office. The FBI's counterintelligence unit there is responsible for monitoring foreign diplomats in the city.
It's one of the most sophisticated intelligence-gathering operations in the U.S. and involves one of the FBI's most extensive electronic surveillance programs, according to former U.S. intelligence officials speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.
It's hardly a secret to foreign intelligence officers, who are skilled at evading surveillance.
The Iranians, for example, are known to rent multiple rooms in hotels around the city and sometimes cancel and re-book at the last moment to conceal who's staying where. In one instance, a former FBI official recalled, the Iranians crammed perhaps a dozen people into one room, leaving U.S. officials to conclude that at least one Iranian official was sleeping in the bathroom, probably in the bathtub.
It's not just the Iranians in New York. Former intelligence officials said the Israelis operate unilaterally in New York, often creating confusion.
One former CIA official said it's hard to distinguish Israelis because they will often enter the country under another nationality — like they did in Dubai, when Mossad operatives killed a Hamas official. In that case, Mossad agents used forged British, Irish and Australian passports.
Other intelligence agencies like Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, better known as the MI6, work more closely with the U.S. MI6 is allowed to operate in New York but any information its officers collect must be shared with U.S. intelligence, the official said.
The CIA is prohibited from domestic intelligence-gathering but, since the United Nations is considered foreign soil, it is authorized to run covert actions there. Its officers are also allowed to recruit foreigners to spy for the U.S., a primary goal for the CIA during the opening of the General Assembly.
Despite the popular narrative that the FBI and CIA are constantly at odds, the two agencies coordinate closely during the General Assembly.
The CIA and FBI vet the names from visas provided to enter the U.S. Those entering the country from places where the FBI and CIA can't operate, like Iran and North Korea, make attractive recruitment possibilities.
Preparation for these operations can take months. The stakes can be high. And the General Assembly can provide the perfect backdrop for such an operation as journalists and diplomats flood the city.
Prior to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the CIA had been enticing high-level Iraqi officials to defect. One such target was Naji Sabri, Iraq's foreign minister. The White House was hoping he would do it in a dramatic way at the General Assembly.
First, though, the CIA had to feel out Sabri to see whether he truly intended to betray Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The CIA needed a cutout, or middleman, a person who could introduce the CIA to Sabri and then walk away plenty richer for doing the job, according to CIA officers familiar with the operation and previously published accounts.
In September 2002, Sabri flew to New York, where the CIA had arranged a meeting with a former foreign journalist who had since moved to France. The journalist, who had provided information to French intelligence in the past, acted as the middleman for an initial $250,000, the former CIA officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss intelligence matters publicly.
But the CIA also had to see whether it could trust the journalist who had claimed he was friendly with Sabri but who was also looking for a big payday of up to $1 million. The CIA relied upon the FBI for this and its extensive eavesdropping capability. When the journalist called Sabri at the Iraq Mission at the U.N., the FBI was listening.
With the FBI's help, the CIA learned Sabri did, in fact, know the journalist. Sabri was handed a list of carefully crafted questions about Saddam's nuclear weapons program.
Sabri answered each question. He said Saddam had never possessed fissile material. There had been stockpiles of chemical weapons but Saddam had destroyed them. The CIA believed that Sabri's responses indicated he had been truthful. His answers were given to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
But the CIA still needed to know whether Sabri wanted to defect. One former CIA official believed the spy agency got its answer on Sept. 19, 2002, when Sabri addressed the General Assembly. He was wearing one of the suits that CIA had purchased for him, the sign he was going abandon Saddam.
But the defection never happened. Sabri left New York and later vehemently denied the episode publicly in 2006 after NBC published details about the operation. He called it "totally fabricated and unfounded."