Saddam, Bugging, and the U.N.

Let he who is without wiretaps cast the first stone.

Every time President Bush explains why we’re going to war, Chatterbox wonders why he ever became a hawk. There are good reasons to go to war, even without the approval of the U.N. Security Council. Chatterbox favors Saddam’s obvious and long-standing violation of U.N. resolutions (and U.S. demands) that he rid himself of chemical and biological weapons. Others emphasize Saddam’s abysmal human rights record. Chatterbox can even almost see how Saddam’s gassing of his own people would constitute a casus belli, though it happened more than a decade ago (and before our previous war with Iraq). Bush has mentioned all these, but he tends to play up two much less persuasive reasons: an unproven link between Iraq and al-Qaida, and a new doctrine of “pre-emption” that we would never allow any other nation to embrace.

Now Bush has a third reason, one that’s breathtaking in its hypocrisy: Saddam’s regime must be toppled because he bugged the United Nations. In his March 17 address to the nation, Bush said, “Over the years, U.N. weapon inspectors have been threatened by Iraqi officials, electronically bugged, and systematically deceived.” Threatening U.N. weapons inspectors deserves condemnation, systematically deceiving U.N. weapons inspectors deserves condemnation, and, prior to March 2, Chatterbox would have agreed that electronically bugging U.N. weapons inspectors deserved condemnation, too. Actually, Chatterbox still thinks so. He just doesn’t think President Bush is any position to condemn Iraq for wiretapping U.N. officials in light of the Observer’s March 2 scoop that the Bushies wiretapped the home and office phones of U.N. Security Council representatives in New York.

The Observer story, which was based on a leaked memo, got appallingly little coverage in the United States, even though it was confirmed by the subsequent arrest of a British intelligence employee for violating the Official Secrets Act. The few U.S. outlets that carried the story emphasized 1) that the bugging was perfectly legal; 2) those who were bugged took the whole thing in stride (Pakistani ambassador Munir Akram: “It’s not surprising”); and 3) that anyone who believed that the world’s pre-eminent diplomatic forum ought not be bugged by the world’s most powerful nation was hopelessly naive. As to 1), it didn’t violate U.S. law, but it did violate the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which requires the host state to “protect free communication on the part of the [diplomatic] mission” and prohibits unauthorized search and entry. (The same applies to diplomats’ homes.) As to 2), it isn’t true that everyone took the bugging in stride; Chile’s President Ricardo Lagos is reportedly furious, and the United Nations has launched an investigation. As to 3), if it’s widely assumed the U.S. routinely bugs the U.N., that may help explain why the U.S. is so widely resented abroad. (For other explanations, read the lucid and informative cover story in the March 24 Newsweek, written by Fareed Zakaria.)

Even if you think it’s a non-story that the U.S. bugged the U.N., the “nobody cares” argument is impossible to sustain when the U.S. says it’s attacking Saddam in part because he bugged U.N. inspectors. Yes, it constitutes interference with the inspection process. And yes, it’s true that we don’t grant Iraq many of the privileges that we allow ourselves—possession of atomic weapons, for example. But wiretaps are not what make Saddam a threat to world peace. In the likely event that Colin Powell knew about the U.S. bugging, it was wrong for him to talk up Iraq’s bugging in his Feb. 5 presentation in Turtle Bay. For Bush to complain about the Iraq bugging now, when the fact of U.S. bugging is now public, is worse than wrong. It’s unbelievably dumb.