The U.S. State Department wish list of information about the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, and other senior members of his organisation was drawn up by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Guardian has learned.
The disclosure comes as new information emerged about Washington's intelligence-gathering on foreign diplomats, including surveillance of the telephone and internet use of Iranian and Chinese diplomats.
One of the most embarrassing revelations to emerge from U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by the whistleblowers' website WikiLeaks has been that U.S. diplomats were asked to gather intelligence on Mr. Ban, other senior staff within the U.N., members of the security council and other foreign diplomats, a possible violation of international law.
The U.S. State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, in interviews since the release, has tried to deflect criticism by repeatedly hinting that although the cables were signed by Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, they originated with another agency. But he refused to identify it.
The Guardian has learned that the intelligence shopping list is drawn up annually by the national manager of Humanint (human intelligence), a post created by the Bush administration in 2005 as part of an effort to better co-ordinate intelligence-gathering in the wake of 9/11.
The manager of Humanint sets out priorities for the coming year and sends them to the State Department. The actual form of words used in the diplomatic cables is written by the State Department, based on the CIA list of priorities.
The cables are tailored for each embassy, such as the U.S. mission to the United Nations. The list of priorities, though co-ordinated by the manager of Humanint, is draw up with input from all U.S. intelligence agencies, including intelligence analysts at the State Department.
The U.S. has been keen to stress that its diplomats are not acting as spies, a label that could endanger their lives. A senior U.S. intelligence official said: "It shouldn't surprise anyone that U.S. officials at the United Nations seek information on how other nations view topics of mutual concern. If you look at the list of topics of interest in this routine cable, the priorities represent not only what Americans view as critical issues, but our allies as well.
"No-one should think of American diplomats as spies. But our diplomats do, in fact, help add to our country's body of knowledge on a wide range of important issues. That's logical and entirely appropriate, and they do so in strict accord with American law."
Earlier, Mr. Crowley continued to deny that the American diplomatic corps is involved in spying in any way. "They are diplomats, they are not intelligence assets," said Mr. Crowley.
The intelligence gathering directives on the U.N. and other countries were sent from the intelligence operations office within the State Department's bureau of intelligence and research, which describes itself as "at the nexus of intelligence and foreign policy".
They made clear the intelligence operation was not merely a useful addition to the work of a secret service but that "the [intelligence] community relies on state reporting officers for much of the biographical information collected worldwide".
Biographic reporting is defined in the cables as including "credit card account numbers, frequent flyer account numbers" as well as "compendia of contact information".
New cables released on Thursday night reveal that , U.S. diplomats at the embassy in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, were ordered to obtain dates, times and telephone numbers of calls received and placed by foreign diplomats from China, Iran and the Latin American socialist states of Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia.
Washington also wanted the foreign diplomats' internet user account details and passwords and the same depth of information for local government and military leaders and "criminal entities or their surrogates", according to a cable sent in 2008. New cables released last night also reveal that Washington has called for diplomats in Romania, Hungary and Slovenia to provide "biometric" information on "current and emerging leaders and advisors" as well as information about "corruption among senior officials" information about leaders' health and "vulnerability".
Ms. Clinton continued to face awkward questions about an intelligence directive which went out under her name in 2009 aimed at the leadership of the United Nations which was revealed in a separate "national human intelligence collection directive". It called for the collection of "biometric" data on permanent security council representatives, and passwords and personal encryption keys used by top U.N. officials in possible contravention on international law. The U.N. directive also specifically asked for "biometric information on ranking North Korean diplomats".
A similar cable to embassies in the Great Lakes region of Africa said biometric data included DNA, as well as iris scans and fingerprints. A leading expert on U.N. law yesterday said the proposed activity in the directive breached two international treaties which aim to protect the U.N. and could lead to the U.S. being censured by the U.N. general assembly or even, in extreme circumstances, prosecution at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The specific targeting of diplomats from North Korea and the permanent representatives of the security council from China, Russia, France and the U.K. leaves the U.S. government exposed to action from any of those countries.
"Obtaining passwords and information on communications systems violates the 1947 headquarters agreement between the U.S. and U.N. and the general convention on the privileges and immunities of the United Nations," said Dapo Akande, lecturer in international law at Oxford University.
The cable to diplomats in Paraguay, where the U.S. is concerned about an increasing Islamist terrorist presence and the influence of China, asks for "information on communication practices of Paraguayan government and military leaders, key foreign officials in country (eg Cuban, Venezuelan, Bolivian, Iranian or Chinese diplomats), and criminal entities or their surrogates".
The information is "to include telephone and fax numbers and email addresses, call activity (date, time, caller numbers, recipient numbers), phone books, cell phone numbers, telephone and fax user listings, internet protocol addresses, user accounts and passwords."
It appears that some of the detail demanded could only be acquired through a hacking operation or by obtaining confidential phone records from telecoms companies.