U.N. General Assembly: Security Challenges and Intelligence Opportunities
By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart
Autumn in the northern United States is a time when birds and other migratory creatures begin to head south in anticipation of the coming winter chill. This week in the early autumn also marks the high point in another migration, when leaders and intelligence officers from across the world flock to New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) session. This intricate annual ritual includes much pomp and politicking, demonstrations of power -- and a good deal of espionage.
Although many of the heads of state and foreign ministers participating in the UNGA's 62nd annual session are friendly to the United States, others are not. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in fact, is generally considered quite unsavory -- to the point that some Americans wish him ill. But when Ahmadinejad is in the United States, his safety is the responsibility of the U.S. government, which takes great pains to carry out its mandate. The visit of such a vocal, colorful and controversial leader as Ahmadinejad, however, creates tremendous security challenges for the U.S. Secret Service and the other agencies supporting its protective mission.
In addition to security headaches, such trips also give the U.S. government an outstanding opportunity to collect intelligence on a leader such as Ahmadinejad, who comes from a country where it is difficult for U.S. intelligence agencies to operate. Such intelligence not only aids in understanding what makes him tick, but also helps the U.S. government formulate strategy on how best to approach and negotiate with his government in the future.
By its very nature, the annual UNGA session presents security problems. The concentration of so many world leaders in one place is a powerful magnet for the international press -- as well as protesters who seek to exploit the media presence to get their messages out to a worldwide audience. Moreover, the UNGA almost always discusses hot-button issues such as wars, human rights issues, climate change and territorial disputes, providing further fodder for the press and the protesters. In fact, several protests take place each day near the United Nations -- some that have permits and some that pop up spontaneously. One memorable spontaneous protest occurred during the UNGA meeting in 1991, when Haiti's military launched a coup that forced Haitian President Bertrand Aristide into exile. That night, tens of thousands of Haitians participated in a huge impromptu demonstration in front of the U.N. complex. The protesters, demanding U.N. action to reinstate Aristide, lit large bonfires in the center of First Avenue and then danced and sang around them until the wee hours of the morning.
Demonstrators sometimes will intentionally cross the line from peaceful protest to physical assault so their arrests will result in press coverage for their issue of choice. These illegal actions might have little or no direct correlation to the object of their protest. For example, in the late 1980s and early 1990s a group called the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) came to the UNGA every year to protest the U.S. government's policy toward El Salvador, and members of the group sought to be arrested in order to publicize their cause. The activists, however, not only would target Salvadoran leaders, but also would jump on any target of opportunity that came by at the time they wanted to be arrested. In consecutive years CISPES members assaulted the unlucky motorcades of the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers to publicize their cause.
Into this general environment comes Ahmadinejad, whose position as the president of Iran, as well as his past rhetoric concerning the United States, Israel and the Holocaust, presents a large panorama of security challenges. During this latest trip to the United States, Ahmadinejad has been protested by a constellation of groups, including Iranian dissidents, Jews, human rights groups, women's rights groups and ordinary Americans.
Since the Iranian Revolution, Iranian dignitaries visiting the United Nations have consistently been met by hostile protesters. Some of the protesters are affiliated with groups such as the Mujahideen e-Khalq (MEK), the Iraq-based Iranian opposition group that the U.S. government has designated a foreign terrorist organization. MEK members and sympathizers have not conducted attacks in the United States, but they have assaulted Iranian officials during events such as UNGA -- especially lower-level members of the Iranian delegations not covered by U.S. protective details. The MEK, however, has on occasion attempted to impede, embarrass or assault Iranian dignitaries such as the president or foreign minister. In an incident a number of years ago, Iranian dissidents mistook the Cuban foreign minister for a similar-looking Iranian foreign minister and hurled eggs at his motorcade
In addition to the demonstration threat, the number of world leaders and the confluence of international press also raise concerns that militants will attempt to conduct an attack during the UNGA. During UNGA sessions, jihadists have surveilled dignitaries such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's then-Foreign Minister Amr Moussa and then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, going so far as to plan attacks against these officials as well as temporary diplomatic residences such as the Waldorf-Astoria and U.N. Plaza hotels.
But perhaps the most acute and least understood and appreciated threat is that posed by the mentally disturbed individual acting alone. This is especially true in the case of a high-profile protectee such as Ahmadinejad, whose position and rhetoric make him a magnet for such people. As demonstrated by attackers such as John Hinckley, Sirhan Sirhan and Mark David Chapman, mentally disturbed individuals have long posed a significant threat to high-profile figures in the United States.
Because of this general threat environment, the strong anti-Iranian sentiment and the Iranians' mistrust of Americans, the Iranians understandably send a large, armed protective detail with dignitaries such as Ahmadinejad. This not only creates security and protocol issues for the U.S. Secret Service and Diplomatic Security Service special agents as they haggle and jostle with foreign security officers over whose agents will be assigned where in the protective formation and motorcade, but it also a creates a condition in which the American protective detail feels the need to protect American citizens from the aggression of the foreign security officers, who will sometimes shove, point weapons at or otherwise intimidate people. Foreign security officers have been known not only to conduct themselves this way toward peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment rights (most protesters are not violent) but also sometimes to act aggressively toward ordinary people on the street.
This history of action directed against Iranian dignitaries has led to another interesting migratory phenomenon. Every year, a number of tough-looking Iranian-American "volunteers" travel to New York from various places around the United States to provide additional security for the Iranian delegates. It speaks volumes that these men, who identify themselves as medical doctors and university students, are trusted by a foreign government with such a sensitive assignment. This group is one the MEK would love to infiltrate. This role is especially significant because Iranian intelligence officers assigned to or visiting the United Nations are restricted to a 25-mile radius from U.N. Headquarters. Eager to collect intelligence outside of that 25-mile zone, the Iranians also call on these U.S. citizens -- whose movements are not restricted, of course -- to carry out the work. These security and intelligence-collection duties bring them to the attention of U.S. agents, who then investigate them and monitor their activities even after they return to their home cities. Moreover, auxiliary Iranian intelligence and security officers can be quite aggressive in their efforts to collect intelligence on anti-Iranian demonstrators during the UNGA, and some of them have been assaulted while attempting to infiltrate the demonstrations. These skirmishes give the U.S. agents watching the crowd further insight into these people.
Iranian intelligence officers are not the only ones who have had their collection efforts hampered by the break in diplomatic relations that followed the 1979 revolution in Iran and the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Not having an embassy in Tehran has made it very difficult for the United States to participate in the standard embassy-based espionage that every country practices. The U.S. government can and does use case officers who operate in Iran under nonofficial cover. It also recruits Iranians from outside of the country -- to supply information from outside or to return home as spies. Those methods, however, do not provide the same flow of intelligence on a country's leadership as does having an embassy in the capital and meeting regularly with government officials.
Because of this, Ahmadinejad's trip to New York has given the U.S. government a unique window of opportunity to gather intelligence. Of course, whom he meets and what they discuss is carefully scrutinized, but even seemingly small bits of information such as his sleeping habits, shopping purchases, diet and any medications he takes or books he reads also are pored over by psychologists, psychiatrists, medical doctors and leadership analysis experts at the CIA and elsewhere. This leadership analysis is done in an effort to understand his current behavior and to predict or anticipate his actions in future situations.
The opportunity to watch members of Ahmadinejad's entourage is another significant intelligence window. All eyes are naturally turned to Ahmadinejad himself, but a significant amount of intelligence also can be gained by watching the lesser-known straphangers -- especially those who are confirmed or suspected intelligence officers. Such individuals usually view attendance at the UNGA sessions as an opportunity to travel to New York and pursue their own agenda, and they frequently can be seen attempting to slip away for meetings on the side. Identifying these people, discovering who they are meeting and why can be a significant intelligence coup. In some ways, monitoring these individuals is more critical than watching Ahmadinejad himself.
Ahmadinejad is but one of the hundreds of dignitaries who will visit New York during the UNGA, though he is one of the relatively few who will be afforded a U.S. protective detail. This dramatic dance of dignitaries, media, protesters and espionage agents will be played out many times until the 62nd UNGA session ends Oct. 3.
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