First World Bugs Attack United Nations

18 December 2004 |

Bugging device found at UN offices


Brian Whitaker and agencies
Saturday December 18, 2004
The Guardian

A secret bugging device has been found behind wooden panels at the UN's European headquarters in Geneva, bolstering claims that the international body is a routine target for eavesdroppers.

"In the course of the renovation of the Salon Français, workmen found what is considered to be a sophisticated listening device," Marie Heuze, the chief UN spokeswoman in Geneva, said yesterday.

She was speaking to reporters after Swiss TSR television obtained photographs of the bug, which it said had been discovered in the autumn.

"An investigation failed to determine who planted the device," Ms Heuze said. "I am not authorised to say anything else."

The discovery echoed allegations by Clare Short, the former British cabinet minister, that Britain had bugged the office of the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, in 2003 during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Ms Short said she had seen transcripts of Mr Annan's conversations.

Two former UN weapons inspectors, Hans Blix and Richard Butler, also said they believed their conversations had been bugged.

Although bugging the UN violates international law, the device found by accident in Geneva is likely to be just one of many, a UN security source said yesterday.

"It's like Swiss cheese," the source, who declined to be identified, told Reuters. "If we had the technical means and staff for thorough searches, I'm certain that we would find one microphone after another. The UN in New York and Vienna are the same."

Patrick Eugster, a Geneva-based surveillance expert who examined pictures of the device for TSR, said it appeared to be of Russian or east European origin.

"It uses a very sophisticated listening system where the sound is captured and re-transmitted," he said. Transmissions would be so brief as to be very difficult to detect.

Describing the device, he said: "We have a main transmitter with a small antenna and a data storage element originating from Hungary or Bulgaria. There are also two microphones."

It was probably made three or four years ago because some of its parts are quite large compared with those available today, he said.

The Salon Français adjoins the main council chamber and is sometimes used by the heads of delegations, possibly for private discussions.

Yesterday it was unclear whether the listening device had targeted anyone in particular or whether it had been placed there opportunistically in the hope of picking up useful titbits.

The Salon Français was one of the rooms used in September 2003 when foreign ministers from major powers - the US, Russia, China, Britain and France - held private talks on Iraq. The French delegation, led by Dominique de Villepin, France's then foreign minister, is believed to have made use of it, though other delegations may also have done so.

The room was also used last January during talks on global hunger attended by Mr Annan, the Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and the French president, Jacques Chirac.

Mr Annan met the Nigerian president, Olusegun Obasanjo, and Cameroon's president, Paul Biya, to discuss the disputed Bakassa Peninsula in the same room.

The Salon Français is used every Wednesday for a teleconference meeting between Mr Annan and the head of the UN's Geneva office, Sergei Ordzhonikidze.

Whether the eavesdropping device gleaned anything important is uncertain. UN officials - and probably visiting politicians - generally assume that anything they say may be overheard.

In an interview with the Guardian earlier this year Mr Blix described the lengths he went to to protect his New York office and home from bugs.

"If you had something sensitive to talk about you would go out into the restaurant or out into the streets," he said.

A former secretary-general, Boutros Boutros Ghali, reportedly had his clothes, briefcase and office checked for bugs at the start of every working day.

He later told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "From the first day I entered my office they said, beware, your office is bugged, your residence is bugged and it is a tradition that the member states who have the technical capacity to bug will do it without any hesitation."

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