Among the more bizarre manifestations of the State Department’s approach to gathering intelligence is a long cable circulated in July 2009 to diplomats at the United States mission to the United Nations and diplomats around the world who might be positioned to snoop on the organization.

The cable, among the WikiLeaks documents most recently dumped on selected news organizations, updates a 2004 directive, thus becoming the Obama administration’s—or Hillary Clinton’s —policy statement on how the UN should be milked for intelligence. The directive, from the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, is described as “a comprehensive list of strategic priorities…intended to guide participating USG [US government] agencies as they allocate resources and update plans to collect information on the United Nations.”

There are some shocking requests made of diplomats. They are expected to gather detailed technical information, including passwords and personal encryption keys for communications networks used by UN officials, and to assemble biometric data on officials right up to and including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Sounds like something Norm Coleman would have dreamed up in his crusade to force the resignation of Kofi Annan during the administration of George W. Bush.

There is more. The State Department wants to know about any links any office or agency might have with terrorists. The directive quite blatantly makes the point that diplomats need to cooperate with intelligence agencies in sharing information. There are not a few diplomats who would rather resign than play that role. One of the common guessing games among American correspondents abroad is to speculate on who might be the local Central Intelligence Agency station chief. For a foreign service officer, crossing the line to undercover intelligence work could be both damaging to credibility and a threat to personal safety.

But here is the marching order to diplomats at the UN, spelled out in Secret Section 01 of 24 State 080163, as posted by the Guardian in London: 

A. (S/NF) The intelligence community relies on State reporting officers for much of the biographical information collected worldwide. Informal biographic reporting via email and other means is vital to the community’s collection efforts and can be sent to the INR/B (Biographic) office for dissemination to the IC.

B. (S/NF) Reporting officers should include as much of the following information as possible when they have information relating to persons linked to : office and organizational titles; names, position titles and other information on business cards; numbers of telephones, cell phones, pagers and faxes; compendia of contact information, such as telephone directories (in compact disc or electronic format if available) and e-mail listings; internet and intranet "handles", internet e-mail addresses, web site identification-URLs; credit card account numbers; frequent flyer account numbers; work schedules, and other relevant biographical information.

Fellow diplomats come in for attention as well as UN officials in the US directive. Not surprisingly, Iran, the Middle East and North Korea are of special interest. On North Korea, the State Department directive wants "details about the UNDP Resident Coordinator’s relationship with North Korean officials" and "biographic and biometric information on ranking North Korean diplomats."

"Our diplomats are just that, diplomats," P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman, told reporters over the weekend. "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."

Really? Collecting credit card and frequent flyer numbers, along with biometric information seems a little bit of a reach.

To Thomas G. Weiss, professor of political science at the CUNY Graduate Center and director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, there is a whiff of the ludicrous in these tasks. “I guess if you’re a marketing firm maybe this makes sense—you’re flying with Delta and not American. But why would you want this kind of information from the UN?” Weiss, who worked for the UN in Geneva during the cold war and watched Soviet and Eastern European spooks photocopying reams of probably useless American trade data, had his first personal encounter with intelligence gathering earlier when he, fresh out of graduate school at Princeton, went to Vietnam as a student in the 1960s and was pursued by the CIA.

The UN, and New York, has been a playground for spies since its origin. Sometimes the targets were American. In the UN’s earliest years, during a wave of anticommunist hysteria, the FBI was permitted by Secretary General Trygve Lie to look for “subversives” among Americans working in the secretariat. Abraham Feller, an American legal counsel to the secretary general, committed suicide under the ensuing tension, though he was never a suspect.

More recently, the London media reported that before the US (and British) invasion of Iraq in 2003, the British government had been spying on Secretary General Kofi Annan, an opponent of the war. Another opponent of the war, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, Mexico’s UN ambassador and a member of the Security Council at the time, told me later that his diplomatic office telephone had been tapped by American intelligence. (Aguilar Zinser died in a car crash in Mexico in 2005.)

“Nobody is going to be surprised that we’re monitoring the UN,” said Stephen Schlesinger, author of Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations. “That came out not only in 1945, at the founding of the UN, but also in the run-up to the Iraq war, when we seemed to be wire tapping every delegate on the Security Council. I could have understood this coming under the Bush administration, but that this is the Obama administration; that does surprise me," he said, adding that he was shocked that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would have signed off on directive calling for the intrusive collection of personal information. “This is going beyond the Bush administration.”

“What this raises in my mind now,” Schlesinger said, "is how much are we are now putting in new wiretaps, listening devices or other monitoring mechanisms into the whole reconstruction of the UN building.” The UN complex is undergoing a comprehensive five-year renovation.

Both Weiss and Schlesinger say that they see no effort in this intelligence gathering to build a case against Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who will be seeking next year to be elected to a second term in office. Short of some unexpected, game-changing misstep, Ban appears not to face opposition from Washington—at least not at this point.

But Schlesinger sees something sadder, a throwback to darker, frostier years from an administration professing publicly to want better relations with the UN and other international organizations.“It’s part of our fundamental distrust of foreigners, and of ‘the abroad,’” he said, “It’s what makes us isolationists, the residual distrust we have of the whole foreign arena.”