In the sheer torrent of information and controversy that accompanied Wikileaks, it was easy for the public to overlook the significance of individual leaks and cables. And one specific set of cables, which changed the game of diplomacy for the entire world, became buried in a barrage of other scandals. These cables revealed the extent to which the United States’ diplomatic service had become a tool to extract intelligence from enemies and allies alike. And, in doing so, they undermined global diplomacy as a whole.   

On November 28, 2010 Wikileaks revealed a 2009 directive to US diplomats at the United Nations (UN), instructing them to spy on top officials and gather a host of specific intelligence. Other directives, dating back as far as 2008, requested similar intelligence from US diplomats posted in embassies in Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America (33 in total). The directives came from the US State Department, and were signed by former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. The news that United States diplomats are involved in espionage was hardly surprising - diplomatic spies are somewhat of an open secret in international circles, and UN officials have long operated under the assumption that they will be spied upon by national delegations. But the leaked cables were distinctive in terms of the extent of individuals involved, the type of intelligence that the US was attempting to gather, and the sudden transparency of the United States’ diplomatic espionage campaign.

In the past, it was assumed that the US (and multiple other countries) planted a small number of spies in diplomatic positions to collect intelligence and take advantage of diplomatic immunity. But there was an understood difference between the select numbers of spies posing as diplomats, who were employed or singled out by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the rest of the diplomatic service, whose primary mission was diplomatic. Diplomatic spies existed, but the majority of the US diplomats were just diplomats, who reported back to their home country only information that was obtained more or less legally. The Wikileaks cables blurred this line in that they ordered all members of the US Foreign Service stationed in the UN and specific embassies to participate in flagrant acts of espionage. 

The type of information asked for by the US State Department also went far beyond the supposed purview of diplomats or even diplomatic spies. The cables focused on intelligence collection for the purpose of the “National Humint Collection Directive” – a US program aimed at acquiring human intelligence from foreign officials. While the cables requested some information that might typically be expected of diplomats to acquire – for example, the UN cable called for “information on plans and intentions of UN leadership or member states affecting elections in Afghanistan” – the directives also requested more sensitive information that clearly fell under the label of espionage. Diplomats in the UN were asked to obtain biometric data (fingerprints, iris scans, signatures, etc.), credit card information, frequent flier numbers, work schedules, email addresses, passwords, personal encryption keys, and cell phone numbers from UN staff and representatives. Those targeted included permanent representatives from North Korea, the United Nations Security Council, and the Group of 77 as well as key UN officials (including UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon). Presumably the information was collected for the purpose of further data mining and surveillance by the United States. Not only did the cables imply that the US had breached the 1946 UN convention that prohibited spying on the UN Secretary General, they painted US diplomatic espionage as more aggressive and invasive than ever before.

The shift in US diplomacy inherent in the leaked cables has worrying implications for the future of global diplomacy, and not just for the United States. Diplomats play an integral role in the political and economic relations between states – they are a necessary part of inter-state negotiations, the enforcement of international law, and soft power (the use of friendly relationships or persuasion to peacefully influence other nations). But a diplomat’s ability to operate freely and wield soft power is predicated on a certain amount of trust and freedom provided to them by foreign governments. When the role of a diplomat is indiscernible from the role of a foreign spy, this trust naturally dissipates and governments respond by placing obstructive restrictions on foreign diplomats. For example, in July 2011, Pakistan placed severe travel restrictions on all foreign diplomats in a move that was largely assumed to be targeted at US diplomatic spies. This case illustrates how espionage on the part of one country can bring about restrictions on all diplomats. When the US changes the rules of the game, it is assumed that other countries are following suit. And, in promoting all of their diplomats to the position of spy and urging them to collect intrusive information in an illegal manner, the US certainly changed the rules.

Wikileaks’ revelations about the nature of US diplomacy did more than just embarrass the state department; they eroded some of the little remaining trust that governments have in foreign diplomats, a concerning development. Spying by diplomats may be nothing new, but its continued exacerbation and proliferation undermines the ability of governments to practice diplomacy without fear of infiltration. If countries want to have amicable inter-state relations, and the UN is to be a safe, neutral space for international cooperation, this trust needs to be rebuilt. Rather than increasingly playing the spy game, countries need to invest in the trust game.