LONDON — While saying they could not confirm an allegation by a former member of Tony Blair’s Cabinet that British intelligence bugged U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s office, veterans of the diplomacy wars find the assertion easily believable.
A former British ambassador to the United Nations said Friday he wouldn’t be surprised if numerous countries engaged in spying at U.N. headquarters.
Former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said he always assumed he was an espionage target.
And in Australia, former U.N. chief weapons inspector Richard Butler said it was “plainly silly” to think his phone calls were not being monitored during his tenure.
The debate surrounding espionage at the United Nations deepened after allegations that Britain spied on U.N. officials before the Iraq war.
Ex-Cabinet secretary sparks furor
Clare Short, former international development secretary in Blair’s Cabinet, said Thursday she had read transcripts of Annan’s conversations and that Britain had been spying on his office in the build-up to the Iraq war. She quit her job last year over Blair’s Iraq policy and has since been a vocal critic of the prime minister, repeatedly urging him to resign.
Blair has refused to confirm or deny Short’s allegation and branded his former minister “deeply irresponsible” for commenting on sensitive security issues.
The United Nations warned that spying on Annan is illegal and said that allegations of British eavesdropping, if true, would undermine his work. Annan wants any spying activities stopped immediately, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said.
Sir Crispin Tickell, Britain’s U.N. envoy from 1987-90, refused to comment on the accuracy of Short's claim, saying he had a continuing duty of loyalty to governments past and present.
"What I would say is I would not be surprised if in New York there is a great deal of listening all over the place from one country to another," he told the British Broadcasting Corp. "And I don't know whether it really makes very much difference."
"My conscience is quite clear about these matters and I would not think it necessarily a bad thing at all if it is in the national interest," Tickell added. "Our friends and allies may indeed be doing something like that themselves.”
Ex-diplomat critical of allegation's public airing
Tickell also criticized Short for going public with her unease about the behavior of the secret services
“If there is a policy question which comes up about which you are uneasy, there are different ways in which you can go round and say I am very unhappy about this,” Tickell said. “You can move me from my job or you can do whatever it is. ... But your prime loyalty is to your employer and, indeed, to the interests of the country.”
Boutros-Ghali, who was secretary general from 1992-96, said he wasn’t shocked by Short’s claim.
“I was not surprised, because from the first day I enter in my office they told me, ’Beware, your office is bugged, your residence is bugged, and it is a tradition that the member states that have the technical capacity to bug will do it without hesitation,”’ Boutros-Ghali said in a telephone interview with BBC radio.
“The best is thing is to find new technology to protect the secretary general, to protect people in the field of diplomacy against the possibility of being bugged,” Boutros-Ghali added. “I believe that this ought to be done and to be done on a regular basis. It costs money, but it is important to protect them so that they will be able to do their job.”
Butler, chief U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq from 1997-99, said Friday he was forced to go for walks in New York’s Central Park for confidential discussions with his contacts because the phones in his office at U.N. headquarters were bugged.
‘No one was being paranoid’
“We were brought to a situation were it was plainly silly to think we could have any serious conversation in our office,” Butler told the Associated Press. “No one was being paranoid, everyone had a black sense of humor about it, there was too much evidence to support it.”
Butler said earlier that at least four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council monitored his calls — the United States, Britain, France and Russia.
The Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported Friday that the phone of another former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, Hans Blix, also was tapped whenever he was in Iraq hunting for banned weapons and the information was shared between the United States, Britain and its allies.
Citing an unnamed intelligence source at Australian intelligence agency, the Office of National Assessments, the radio network claimed that Blix’s mobile phone was monitored and his conversations recorded while he was in Iraq prior to the war last year.
“That’s what I’m told, specifically each time he entered Iraq, his phone was targeted and recorded and the transcripts were then made available to the United States, Australia, Canada, the U.K. and also New Zealand,” ABC investigative reporter Andrew Fowler said, citing his intelligence contacts. He did not say who tapped Blix’s phone.
The subject of eavesdropping on U.N. personnel was propelled onto front pages in Britain when Short, who resigned as international development secretary following the campaign to topple Saddam Hussein, said she had read transcripts of Annan's conversations while she was a member of the government.
Transcripts of Annan conversations
"The U.K. in this time was also getting, spying on Kofi Annan's office and getting reports from him about what was going on," she told BBC radio.
“I know, I have seen transcripts of Kofi Annan’s conversations. In fact I have had conversations with Kofi in the run-up to war thinking ’Oh dear, there will be a transcript of this and people will see what he and I are saying.”’
Blair said at a news conference Thursday that Britain's intelligence services always act in accordance with domestic and international law. But he declined to discuss specifics of Short’s charge, saying that doing so would violate his government's policy of not discussing intelligence matters.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, asked about the allegation Thursday in Washington, “I have nothing to say with respect to the activities of the United Kingdom,” he said. “We never talk about intelligence matters of that nature in public.”
Short’s comments came as she was interviewed about the decision made Wednesday to drop legal proceedings against a former intelligence employee who leaked a confidential memo raising concerns about spying in the United Nations.
Katharine Gun, 29, a former Mandarin translator with Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters listening station, allegedly leaked a memo from U.S. intelligence officers asking their British counterparts to spy on members of the U.N. Security Council before the Iraq war.
Charge over leak dropped
The charge of violating the Official Secrets Act against Gun was dropped after prosecutors said they would offer no evidence against her.
The memo, leaked to The Observer newspaper, asked the British listening agency for help bugging delegates’ home and office telephones and e-mails. At the time, the United States was seeking to win Security Council backing for war in Iraq.
The Observer quoted the memo, dated Jan. 31. 2003, as asking British and American intelligence staff to step up surveillance operations “particularly directed at ... U.N. Security Council Members (minus U.S. and GBR, of course).”
Short was one of two Cabinet members to resign in protest to Britain’s participation in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Robin Cook, a former foreign secretary, resigned as leader of the House of Commons before the campaign began.
In the past, Short has called for Blair to resign, accusing him of misleading the country about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein.
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