US diplomats gather intelligence

Seek out personal data, cables order

By Mark Mazzetti
New York Times / November 29, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The United States has expanded the role of US diplomats in collecting intelligence overseas and at the United Nations, ordering State Department personnel to gather the credit card and frequent-flier numbers, work schedules, and other personal information of foreign dignitaries.

Revealed in classified State Department cables, the directives, going back to 2008, appear to blur the traditional boundaries between statesmen and spies.

The cables give instructions for how employees can fulfill the demands of a “National Humint Collection Directive.’’ (Humint is spy-world jargon for human intelligence collection.)

One cable asks officers overseas to gather information about “office and organizational titles; names, position titles, and other information on business cards; numbers of telephones, cellphones, pagers and faxes,’’ as well as “Internet and intranet ‘handles’, Internet e-mail addresses, website identification-URLs; credit card account numbers; frequent-flier account numbers; work schedules, and other relevant biographical information.’’

Philip Crowley, a State Department spokesman, disputed yesterday that US diplomats had assumed a new role overseas.

“Our diplomats are just that, diplomats,’’ he said. “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.’’

The cables, sent to embassies in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the US mission to the United Nations, provide no evidence that US diplomats are actively trying to steal the secrets of foreign countries, work that is traditionally the preserve of spy agencies.

While the State Department has long provided information about foreign officials’ duties to the CIA to help build biographical profiles, the more intrusive personal information diplomats are now being asked to gather could be used by the National Security Agency for data mining and surveillance operations. A frequent-flier number, for example, could be used to track the travel plans of foreign officials.

Several of the cables also asked diplomats for details about the telecommunications networks supporting foreign militaries and intelligence agencies.

The United States regularly deploys undercover intelligence officers posing as diplomats overseas, but a vast majority of diplomats are not spies.

Several retired ambassadors, told about the information-gathering assignments disclosed in the cables, expressed concern that State Department employees abroad could routinely come under suspicion of spying and find it difficult to do their work or even risk expulsion.

The requests have come at a time when the nation’s spy agencies are struggling to meet the demands of two wars and a global hunt for militants.