A government building burns during heavy bombardment of Baghdad, Iraq, by United States-led forces on March 21, 2003. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay) 

Many Washington policymakers and journalists have framed the NSA surveillance controversy as a debate between privacy and security. Proponents of the data dragnets argue straightforwardly that it is necessary to protect Americans from terrorists. “I flew over the World Trade Center going to Senator [Frank] Lautenberg’s funeral, and in the distance was the Statue of Liberty. And I thought of those bodies jumping out of that building, hitting the canopy,” Senator Dianne Feinstein said on Sunday. “Part of our obligation is keeping Americans safe.”

Opponents often accept the same frame, but argue that the country has traded away too much privacy. “I want our law enforcement people to be vigorous in going after terrorists.” Senator Bernie Sanders told Chris Hayes on MSNBC’s All In Monday night. “But I happen to believe they can do that without disregarding the constitution of the United States or the civil liberties of the American people.”

But what if the government abuses the vast surveillance power it is accumulating? What if the NSA is used for political purposes, not safety? This is often left out of the debate, or dismissed outright. Eric Posner wrote at The New York Times website that “I am unaware—and correct me if I am wrong—of a single instance during the last 12 years of war-on-terror-related surveillance in which the government used information obtained for security purposes to target a political opponent, dissenter or critic.”

Unfortunately, the NSA has already abused its surveillance power in at least one case where political opponents were targeted, and it’s a big one.

In 2003, a woman named Katharine Gun, who was working for a British intelligence agency, leaked a memo to the press from an NSA agent named Frank Koza. It described a massive American effort to monitor the communications of six delegations to the United Nations—the so-called “Middle Six” who were undecided on authorizing the Iraq War and who were being fiercely courted by both sides.

Here’s what memo said, in part. (Note “the Agency” is the NSA):

As you’ve likely heard by now, the Agency is mounting a surge particularly directed at the UN Security Council (UNSC) members (minus US and GBR of course) for insights as to how to membership is reacting to the on-going debate RE: Iraq, plans to vote on any related resolutions, what related policies/ negotiating positions they may be considering, alliances/ dependencies, etc—the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals or to head off surprises. In RT, that means a QRC surge effort to revive/ create efforts against UNSC members Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria and Guinea, as well as extra focus on Pakistan UN matters.

We’ve also asked ALL RT topi’s to emphasize and make sure they pay attention to existing non-UNSC member UN-related and domestic comms for anything useful related to the UNSC deliberations/ debates/ votes. We have a lot of special UN-related diplomatic coverage (various UN delegations) from countries not sitting on the UNSC right now that could contribute related perspectives/ insights/ whatever. We recognize that we can’t afford to ignore this possible source.

The British newspaper The Observer had three former intelligence officials confirm its authenticity, and confirmed that indeed a man named Frank Koza worked at the NSA. The British government tacitly admitted the memo was real by charging Gun with violating the Official Secrets Act. The charges were later dropped when the British government was worried it would have to disclose secret legal advice about the war during the trial.

James Bamford, a veteran journalist covering the NSA, confirmed the account in his book and said it extended to monitoring United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq. At the time, however, US media outlets covered the story lightly, or ignored it completely, in the case of The New York Times.

So here is a clear case where the US government used its surveillance powers—ostensibly in place for national security—to target political opponents and advance an invasion of Iraq. The memo states explicitly that the surveillance is being used to “give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals or to head off surprises.”

While this may be news to many people fiercely debating the NSA this week, it is not news to the United Nations. It has already accepted illegal surveillance as a part of international diplomacy. Here’s what several United Nations official told Foreign Policy this week:

Several U.N. based diplomats and officials interviewed for this story said they shared similar expectations—that most of their electronic and digital communications are being monitored by friendly and unfriendly governments.

“I think we all assume all of our emails are being monitored by all sorts of countries,” said one senior U.N. official, who like most others interviewed for this piece spoke by telephone or communicated by email on the condition of anonymity.

One chief argument made by civil libertarians is that massive surveillance power will inevitably lead to abuse—that the mission will creep from security to political and diplomatic applications. The fact is, it already has.

So one must then wonder: Where does it go next?

For more NSA coverage, Bob Dreyfuss pushes back against those comparing Obama's surveillance scandal to those of Nixon, Bush.