State Department to move UN General Assembly operations out of Chinese-owned Waldorf-Astoria

Industries Associated Press

The State Department will abandon decades of tradition this fall at the annual U.N. General Assembly by setting up shop in a hotel other than New York's iconic Waldorf-Astoria, which was purchased last year by a Chinese company.

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Officials said Wednesday the department would base its U.N. operations at the New York Palace Hotel instead of the famed Waldorf. The officials did not give a reason for the switch, which will affect hundreds of American diplomats and support staff who travel to New York for the General Assembly each September and usually stay and hold meetings on two secured floors at the Waldorf.

However, officials pointed to Hilton Worldwide's sale of the Waldorf-Astoria to China's Beijing-based Anbang Insurance Group for $1.95 billion last year, a deal that prompted security concerns. Terms of the sale allow Hilton to run the hotel for the next 100 years but also call for "a major renovation" that officials say has raised eyebrows in Washington, where fears of Chinese eavesdropping and cyberespionage run high.

The U.S. suspects China-linked hackers were behind a recent massive breach of federal personnel records that compromised the data of millions of government workers.

At the time of the October 2014 sale, officials said it could have implications for the U.S. government's longstanding relationship with the hotel. They said decisions about the relationship would be made on cost, Anbang's plans, the government's needs and security concerns with an eye on the renovation project.

The State Department routinely warns U.S. diplomats in China about physical and electronic surveillance and tells American citizens in the country to be aware of similar risks, notably in hotels.

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"Hotel rooms (including meeting rooms), offices, cars, taxis, telephones, Internet usage and fax machines may be monitored onsite or remotely, and personal possessions in hotel rooms, including computers, may be searched without your consent or knowledge," the department's travel advice for China says.

"Business travelers should be particularly mindful that trade secrets, negotiating positions and other business-sensitive information may be taken and shared with local interests," it says.

The officials said the State Department's decision would likely affect the traveling operations of the White House, which also sends large numbers of officials to New York for the General Assembly, including the president, who has in the past stayed at the Waldorf.

It was not immediately clear whether the Waldorf residence of the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations would be moved to another location. The State Department has leased an apartment for the ambassador on the 42nd floor of the hotel's Waldorf Towers for more than 50 years.

U.S. law allows the department to rent the ambassador's residence for a term of 10 years or less. The current lease expires this year with an option to renew for one or two years.