High drama at the U.N.

On Monday, a group of South Korean and allied investigators will brief the U.N. Security Council on evidence that a North Korean midget submarine torpedoed the naval ship Cheonan last March, killing more than 46 sailors. The joint investigation team — which is made up of 50 investigators from South Korea, the United States, Australia, ...

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TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, a group of South Korean and allied investigators will brief the U.N. Security Council on evidence that a North Korean midget submarine torpedoed the naval ship Cheonan last March, killing more than 46 sailors. The joint investigation team -- which is made up of 50 investigators from South Korea, the United States, Australia, Britain and Sweden -- said last month that torpedo parts recovered at the site of the explosion "perfectly match" similar torpedoes Pyongyang tried to sell to foreign buyers, and that they bore Korean writing. Monday's presentation -- which will include much of the same evidence -- is intended to step up pressure on China to support a resolution condemning Pyongyang for its aggression against Seoul.

Such security briefings are rare, but they have a long history in the Security Council at times of international crisis, from the Cuba Missile Crisis, to the Iraq war of 2003. By presenting its most guarded secrets -- including satellite imaging, radio intercepts, and accounts by defectors -- an aggrieved country can score an important propaganda victory, or nudge a skeptical council into supporting its position. In any event, it always adds a touch of drama to the council's typically staid and somber meetings. Turtle Bay thought it would be useful to provide a snapshot of some of the most important intelligence and security briefings presented at the council, and why they matter.

UNTIL HELL FREEZES OVER

On Monday, a group of South Korean and allied investigators will brief the U.N. Security Council on evidence that a North Korean midget submarine torpedoed the naval ship Cheonan last March, killing more than 46 sailors. The joint investigation team — which is made up of 50 investigators from South Korea, the United States, Australia, Britain and Sweden — said last month that torpedo parts recovered at the site of the explosion "perfectly match" similar torpedoes Pyongyang tried to sell to foreign buyers, and that they bore Korean writing. Monday’s presentation — which will include much of the same evidence — is intended to step up pressure on China to support a resolution condemning Pyongyang for its aggression against Seoul.

Such security briefings are rare, but they have a long history in the Security Council at times of international crisis, from the Cuba Missile Crisis, to the Iraq war of 2003. By presenting its most guarded secrets — including satellite imaging, radio intercepts, and accounts by defectors — an aggrieved country can score an important propaganda victory, or nudge a skeptical council into supporting its position. In any event, it always adds a touch of drama to the council’s typically staid and somber meetings. Turtle Bay thought it would be useful to provide a snapshot of some of the most important intelligence and security briefings presented at the council, and why they matter.

UNTIL HELL FREEZES OVER

On October 25, 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. ambassador Adlai Stevenson, presided over a presentation to the Security Council showing aerial photos of Russian missiles in Cuba, It proved to be one of the most dramatic, and effective, public uses of intelligence to isolate and embarrass an American rival. It also provided Stevenson, a failed Democratic presidential candidate, with perhaps his most famous political moment on the world stage. Addressing a packed Security Council audience, Stevenson prodded his Soviet counterpart, Valerian Zorin, to admit that his country was deploying missiles in Cuba. Before Zorin had time to reply, Stevenson interrupted, demanding: "Don’t wait for the translation: answer "yes" or "no." Zorin refused to take the bait as the chamber erupted in laughter.  After a brief pause, Stevenson continued: "I’m prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that is your decision. And I’m also prepared to present the evidence in this room." A team of American officials then revealed a series of surveillance photos pinpointing Soviet built airfields and missiles that had been deployed on Cuba soil, for potential use against American targets. Watch the dramatic session here.

WISHING YOU A FOND FAREWELL

On September 1, 1983, Soviet pilots shot down a Korean civilian airliner as it crossed Soviet airspace over the Sea of Japan, killing all 269 passengers on board, including a U.S. Congressman, Lawrence McDonald. The Soviet Union initially denied downing the airplane, but shifted its account after Jeanne Kirkpatrick, President Ronald Reagan‘s U.N. envoy, delivered a two-day presentation to the Security Council, complete with radio intercepts of the Soviet pilots’ communications and a map that charted the flight pattern of the downed aircraft. The incident led to a major political crisis between the Cold War superpowers as lawmakers in New York and New Jersey quickly passed legislation rescinding landing rights for Soviet aircraft, disrupting Soviet plans to fly Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to New York to attend the annual U.N. General Assembly session. The Reagan administration opposed the move to block the Soviets’ travel, which violated a provision of the U.N. Charter that requires foreign delegations entry to the U.S. for U.N. business. The U.S. offered to let Gromyko’s plane land at an American military airbase. The Soviets declined. A Soviet diplomat, Igor I. Yakovlev, protested in a meeting of the U.N. host country committee, saying the landing ban "raises questions of whether the United Nations should be in the United States." The U.S. delegate, Charles Lichenstein, responded that if U.N. member states believe "they are not being treated with the hostly consideration that is their due," they should consider "removing themselves and this organization from the soil of the United States." He added: "We will put no impediment in your way. The members of the United States mission to the United Nations will be down at the dockside waving you a fond farewell as you sail off into the sunset."

COJONES OR COWARDICE

On February 24, 1996, two Cuban Air Force MIG-29 fighter jets shot down a pair of unarmed Cessna planes operated by members of an anti-Castro exile group, setting the stage for the Clinton administration’s most serious confrontation with Cuba at the United Nations. Shortly after the incident, Madeleine K. Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., oversaw a presentation of radio intercepts of one of the Cuban pilots boasting, in the English translation, "We took out his balls." Referencing the Spanish word for testicles, Albright delivered perhaps her most memorable quote. "Frankly, this is not cojones; this is cowardice," she told reporters. The U.S. presentation also contained radar readings showing the planes were shot down in international airspace — a claim Havana challenged. The U.S. secured a statement from the council saying that it "strongly deplores the shooting down by the Cuban Air Force of two civilian aircraft." But Albright was unable to persuade China to condemn the Cuban act and consider possible sanctions. Still, Albright’s statement put her on the political map in Washington and aided her in securing her next job as the country’s first female secretary of state. U.S. President Bill Clinton would later say her cojones remark constituted "probably the most effective one-liner in the whole administration’s foreign policy."

JONAS MADE HIM DO IT

On January 18, 2000, Canada’s then U.N. ambassador, Robert Fowler, broadcast a videotape of interviews he conducted with defectors from the Angola rebel movement, UNITA, accusing their former leader Jonas Savimbi of ordering the takedown of two U.N. airplanes, killing 23 passengers and crew members. Gen. Jacinto Bandua and Lt. Col. Jose Antonio Gil, former UNITA commanders who had switched sides in the Angolan civil war, said that a rebel named Gregorio downed both U.N. aircraft — on Dec. 26, 1998, and Jan. 2, 1999 — with a shoulder-held rocket launcher. Savimbi then ordered his men to destroy the planes’ black boxes, burn any human remains and bury the evidence. Gregorio later received a promotion. "Savimbi issued specific, categoric orders to shoot down any aircraft of the United Nations," said Jacinto, dressed in army fatigues and sitting in front of a U.N. flag. "And it was he who, after the shooting, gave orders to cover it up so as not to find any trace." Diplomats familiar with the U.N.’s own probe into the crashes, which left one American dead, told me at the time that there were discrepancies between the U.N. findings and the defector’s testimony. The U.N. probe, which filmed the debris at the crash site, concluded that the first U.N. plane was flying beyond the range of a shoulder-launched missile and that the second aircraft was brought down by anti-aircraft guns, the officials said.

PLAYING CAT AND MOUSE WITH SADDAM

On June 3 and 4, 1998, Richard Butler, the head of the U.N. special commission searching for Iraq’s weapons, provided a confidential intelligence briefing to the Security Council designed to convince member states that Iraq had developed an elaborate deception to conceal its banned weapons. The presentation included a Russian gyroscope — equipment used to guide a Scud missile — obtained by U.N. divers in the Tigris River and satellite imagery of Iraqi vehicles purportedly fleeing a facility moments before the U.N. arrived. U.N. inspectors said that one satellite image showing a cluster of trucks outside a government office was probably agents from the Iraqi intelligence branch, Mukhabarat, clearing some sensitive documents before the U.N. could find them. Alain Dejammet, France’s U.N. ambassador at the time, said it "could have been mothers picking up their children from kindergarten." The French diplomat also dismissed another photo showing an Iraqi convoy racing ahead of the U.N. inspectors to another site. "It could have been a truckers’ picnic."

COLIN POWELL’S WORST HOUR

On February 5, 2003, as the U.S. mobilized thousands of troops for war in Iraq, then Secretary of State Colin Powell, shadowed by CIA chief George J. Tenet, presented to the 15-nation council an overwhelming array of charts, satellite photos, and radio intercepts meant to show that Iraq was engaged in a highly elaborate scheme to conceal a deadly program of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. In a 90-minute address, Powell accused Iraq of supporting al Qaeda, concealing biological weapons in mobile trucks, and constructing a fleet of unmanned drones capable of spreading biological or chemical agents over huge swaths of territory. The most indelible image from that day is of Powell holding a vial of simulated anthrax. Less than a single teaspoon of the agent, he noted, caused panic in the U.S. postal system two years earlier. Iraq, he warned, had not accounted for 16,500 liters of anthrax, enough to "fill tens upon tens upon tens of thousands of teaspoons." But the case crumbled after the U.S.-led invasion revealed that Iraq had destroyed its weapons programs more than a decade earlier, and Powell’s reputation as a reliable counterweight to the hawkish officials of the Bush administration never recovered. U.N. diplomats still reference the Bush administration’s faulty case to challenge U.S. credibility. Iraq’s U.N. ambassador, Mohammed Douri, dismissed Powell’s assertions as "utterly unrelated to the truth." The Iraqi diplomat was closer to the truth than perhaps he even realized.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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