Foreign potentates and diplomats beware: the United States wants your DNA.
If that chief of mission seemed a bit too friendly at the last embassy party, it might be because the State Department recently instructed U.S. diplomats to collect biometric identification on their foreign interlocutors. The search for the most personal information of all is contained in WikiLeaks’ latest publication of tens of thousands of sensitive diplomatic cables.
A missive from the Secretary of State’s office in April 2009 asked diplomats in Africa to step up their assistance to U.S. intelligence. Not only should diplomats in Burundi, Rwanda and Congo collect basic biographical information on the people they talk to — a routine diplomatic function — but they should also gather “fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and iris scans.”
There’s no guidance listed on how exactly diplomats are supposed to collect the unique identifiers of “key civilian and military officials.” In recent years, the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan has built storehouses of biometric data to understand who’s an insurgent and who isn’t, all using small, portable eye and thumb scanners. But the State Department’s foray into bio-info collection hasn’t previously been disclosed.
It wasn’t just in Africa. As part of an expansion of the State Department into intelligence gathering, the secretary’s office in October 2008 asked Mideast-based diplos focused on the Palestinians to get “[b]iographical, financial and biometric information” on “key [Palestinian Authority] and HAMAS leaders and representatives, to include the young guard inside Gaza, the West Bank and outside.” And it asked diplomats at the United Nations to start sweeping up thumbprints and facial features. The July 2009 memo targeted U.N. representatives of countries including “China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, South Africa, Sudan, Uganda, Senegal, and Syria” for the treatment, along with “ranking North Korean diplomats.”
The stated rationale of that biometric effort is to get information from “regional groups, blocs, or coalitions on issues before the General Assembly.” But it’s far from clear how the swirl of a diplomat’s fingerprint reveals anything about voting strategy. And that appears to be part of a recent pattern. Senior foreign-service officers in Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Gambia, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal are asked to acquire “health, biographic, biometric, and assessment information on leaders” of those countries, all in the name of keeping tabs on “separatist, insurgent or radical opposition groups.”
And U.S. diplomats aren’t just supposed to collect biometric identification themselves. Some cables instruct them to collect information on how other countries are using biometrics to keep tabs on local extremists. A March 2008 cable to the U.S. embassy in the Paraguayan capitol of Asunción asked after “[g]overnment plans and efforts to deploy biometric systems” to understand a “Government Counterterrorist Response.” Apparently, the government had questions about the reach of “Hizballah, Hamas, al-Gama’at al-Islamiya, al-Qa’ida, jihadist media organizations, Iranian state agents or surrogates” into South America.
State Department representatives didn’t immediately respond to questions about why diplomats need to acquire DNA and other biometric data on foreigners, what State does with any biometric information it gets, or how long the department retains it. “Fingerprints and photographs are collected as part of embassies’ consular and visa operations,” a baffled Guardian story notes, “but it is harder to see how diplomats could justify obtaining DNA samples and iris scans.”
By Spencer Ackerman, Wired