How I Spied at the UN Meeting

Who ever said spies don’t know how to party?

The largest, global Spy-mixer of the year is happening in New York City.

I have had the glorious privilege of attending and participating at these gatherings and I can tell you first hand that they are incredibly well attended by men and women who specialize in tradecraft, recruiting, theft, unlawful entry and all manner of secretive and highly esoteric machinations. People like me.

On September 26, 2018 Fox News published a very intriguing and insightful article by Holly McKay entitled “Annual UN Gathering a Hotbed for Spies, Many From US Adversaries”.

She would have also been correct if she had titled her column “Annual UN Gathering a Hotbed for Spies, While Many US Spies Target our Adversaries”.

This is a very accurate article. Running an operation against the UN (during General Assembly) was my first big Op as an American foreign intelligence operative.

I was sent to attend the General Assembly under the “cover for status” as a graduate student working on my thesis about the effectiveness of the UN. I was given two weeks to see if I could learn the name of someone who had access to [CLASSIFIED].

Remember, although the UN Building is right there in the heart of New York City, it is foreign soil.

Americans do not have their beloved Constitutional rights while on UN property – it would kind of be like living in L.A., Chicago, DC and other places that are within the US borders but where our Bill Of Rights have been suspended.

Ms. McKay opens her article with “UN headquarters in New York is swarming with spies and intelligence operatives from all over the world, experts agree.” And it truly is.

For guys and gals in my career, it is also a phenomenal hunting ground with riches and treasures strewn about like popcorn on a theater floor.

During my two weeks of “operational time”, I was working on identifying security risks, and isolating myself from my many opponents engaged in similar clandestine maneuvers at the behest of their home country.

It would be nice if you could work the room and inquire of your fellow revelers if any of them could point you to someone who knew [CLASSIFIED]. But, that would be in violation of socially accepted norms and international law.

So, I had to observe the room. I had to discover the networking and exchanges of goodwill and disgust amongst the throngs of attendees.

I had to figure out, using only the clues of body language, movements and attire, as well as asking a few non-alerting questions of several people, to determine the actual hierarchy in each delegation that was in my targeting package.

I knew that often foreign countries send their senior spy hunters to the General Assembly posing as their nation’s power brokers. We do the same thing.

You will often hear it said that the spy business is a lot like the game of chess. But, that gives us far too much credit. In fact, the game we play is smoke and mirrors or even three shells and a pea.

Ms. McKay quoted former Secret Service Officer Larry Johnson. Johnson said the “in-person reconnaissance” is especially active at the UNGA. “They take advantage of the dining, networking and informal meetings … People tend to be less guarded in those moments, especially if they’ve been drinking, so it can be a gold mine for intel collection.”

They sure got that right!

It took me about three days to find and get a positive ID on my chosen target.

I did not want to come across as a threat, but I also wanted to convey that I had more in mind than just a glossy and shallow chat. Oh, and by the way, I had to pull it off using his native language.

I still wonder sometimes how it all worked out, but it did. I worked him for two, maybe three days, but I finally used the pre-planned conversation in the hourglass format and got him to agree to a discreet meeting with me.

It’s a lot like dating, you don’t want to move too fast and scare them off, but you don’t want your relationship to downshift into friendship, either.

No matter what other people tell you, in my experience, it’s not what you say or even what you offer. At first, it’s about how well you listen, how empathetic you can appear, and how comfortable you can make your target feel.

I finally learned what he “said” he wanted, but more importantly I figured out what he “really” wanted. Once you know someone’s true motivation, you can begin using your training in manipulation and persuasion.

I was able to connect with him and he signed up for the full ride. In the following five days, I got far more than I (or the tasking order) had hoped for or even thought possible.

I was presented with a special cash award for “Security Awareness” (So my wife and kids could come into the building for the presentation of the award by the Director).

We continued to receive high value intelligence for years to come. That event at the UN shaped the rest of my life.

If I had not volunteered for that “severely risky” assignment (because of the activity of so many spies, counterspies, and the covert security and espionage maneuverings – remember, the UN is NOT American soil and I was not operating under the cover of diplomatic status), I may never have developed the self-confidence to pursue a career in international espionage.

The bottom line is, the UN gathering is another reminder that spies are all around us here in the US, both government and private organizations. This is why you always need to have your guard up and be careful of people who are showing a little too much interest in you. After all, there’s no telling what they really want from you.

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