U.S. diplomats collecting personal information on foreign officials is neither new nor unusual, multiple State Department officials told The Cable, in response to the release of hundreds of thousands of sensitive diplomatic messages by the self-described whistleblower website WikiLeaks.
One of the most discussed of the more than 200 diplomatic cables WikiLeaks has released from its reported cache of over 250,000 is a July 31, 2009 cable sent from Washington to several diplomatic missions entitled, "Reporting and collection needs: The United Nations." Classified as SECRET by Michael Owens, the State Department's acting director for operations at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), the cable outlines a long list of personal information the U.S. intelligence community wanted U.S. diplomats to collect about U.N. and foreign officials, including cell phone numbers, e-mail addresses, internet "handles," passwords, credit card account numbers, and frequent flyer account numbers.
The new National HUMINT Collection Directive was only one of several that asked U.S. diplomats to collect human intelligence around the world, has been roundly portrayed in domestic and foreign media as directing diplomats to act as intelligence assets. The U.K.'s Guardian newspaper's article was entitled, "US diplomats spied on UN leadership." The New York Times said that the cables "appear to blur the traditional boundaries between statesmen and spies."
But in an interview with The Cable on Sunday evening, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that these activities did not mean that U.S. diplomats were being asked to act as intelligence assets.
"Our diplomats are just that, diplomats," Crowley said. "They represent our country around the world and engage openly and transparently with representatives of foreign governments and civil society. Through this process, they collect information that shapes our policies and actions. This is what diplomats, from our country and other countries, have done for hundreds of years."
Another State Department senior official objected to the contention that these directives came from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, despite the fact that they are marked as being from "SECSTATE." Germany's Der Spiegel, in their write up of the State Department cables, called them "Orders from Clinton."
"The long-standing practice at the State Department is to include the secretary's name at the end of every cable sent from Washington," Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy told The Cable. "This practice has not included that the secretary review or approve the hundreds of thousands of cables sent each year."
But the leaked directives to U.S. diplomats to report about foreign officials are causing considerable angst inside the State Department, where many officials believe that the nature of the communiqués are being misreported and misinterpreted.
"What this cable represents is an annual wish list from intelligence managers that just highlights for the U.S. government issues of particular interest and just asks if they come across any of these areas in the course of their normal duties that they report it through appropriate channels," one State Department official told The Cable on background basis.
"Overseas, it's being misconstrued that the Secretary of State is tasking diplomats to do intelligence duties, and that's not the case," the official said.
At their Foggy Bottom headquarters, State has set up an internal working group that is working in shifts around the clock, "monitoring the situation and supporting our senior staff and embassies around the world," the official said. "We follow the same process whenever a major event occurs."
Specifically, the cables show that U.S. diplomats in New York were asked to collect Biographic and biometric information on ranking North Korean diplomats. Separate cables disclosed on Sunday show that U.S. diplomats overseas were asked for specific reporting on officials from the Palestinian territories, Paraguay, Bulgaria, and Africa's Great Lakes region.
The State Department officials emphasized to The Cable the distinction between diplomats who collect information as part of a wide range of duties and intelligence personnel, who have a singular and specific mission. The official also argued that other countries do the same thing and that the intelligence gathered by U.S. diplomats also benefits Washington's allies.
"Information collection is something that diplomats of every country do every day. These areas of particular interest, they're not just ours," the official said. "This is information that's of use to us, and to our allies and friends with whom we're trying to solve regional and global challenges."
"We're not asking our diplomats to do anything substantially different from what they've been doing for eons," the official continued. "Every diplomat and mission around the world is doing the same thing."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.