The United Nations has received assurances from the US government that its communications networks “are not and will not be monitored” by American intelligence agencies, it said.
But chief UN spokesman Martin Nesirky would not comment yesterday on whether the world body had been monitored in the past, as reported recently by the German magazine Der Spiegel.
He said the UN had been in contact with Washington about the reports that surfaced two months ago and has received a US guarantee of no current or future eavesdropping.
“Back in August when these reports first surfaced, we said we would be in touch with the relevant authorities,” he said.
“And I can tell you that we were indeed in touch with the US authorities. I understand that the US authorities have given assurance that the United Nations communications are not and will not be monitored.”
Mr Nesirky would not elaborate on whether spying had taken place and declined to answer related questions. For emphasis, he held up a piece of paper that said: “No comment.”
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press: “The United States is not conducting electronic surveillance targeting the United Nations headquarters in New York.”
It was not clear whether foreign UN missions in New York could be monitored by US intelligence agencies.
Former US Ambassador John Bolton, who held the post at the United Nations from 2005-2006, would not comment on “what may or may not have gone on in the past” because he is no longer in government.
“That said, it seems to me that the United Nations and everybody walking through the UN building are perfectly legitimate intelligence targets, and I think any decision by any president to say we are not going to eavesdrop on UN headquarters is a mistake,” he told the AP.
“There’s nothing in the US Constitution that says you may not eavesdrop on the UN.
“Silence and a deeply emphasised ’No comment’ is how you should deal with all these intelligence questions.”
Der Spiegel reported that documents it obtained from US leaker Edward Snowden show the National Security Agency (NSA) secretly monitored the UN’s internal video conferencing system by decrypting it last year.
Der Spiegel quoted an NSA document as saying that within three weeks, the number of decoded communications had increased from 12 to 458.
The magazine also reported that the NSA installed bugs in the European Union’s office building in Washington and infiltrated the EU’s computer network.
The United Nations lodged objections. Spokesman Farhan Haq said in August that international treaties protect UN offices and all diplomatic missions from interference, spying and eavesdropping.
“The inviolability of diplomatic missions, including the United Nations, has been well-established in international law, and therefore all states are expected to act accordingly,” Mr Nesirky said yesterday.
The 1961 Vienna Convention regulates diplomatic issues and status among nations and international organisations.
Among other things, it says a host country cannot search diplomatic premises or seize its documents or property.
It also says the host government must permit and protect free communication between the diplomats of the mission and their home country.
However, wiretapping and eavesdropping have been used for decades, most dramatically between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.