New twists in spy scandal bugging Blair

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 February, 2004, 12:00am

The spying game, it is said, has only one rule - don't get caught. British Prime Minister Tony Blair must be wishing it had been observed in the case of his country's alleged eavesdropping operations against the head of the United Nations.

Mr Blair now finds himself at the centre of another scandal over intelligence and the war on Iraq. It was prompted by a former cabinet minister's allegations that British spies had secretly recorded the private conversations of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Her accusations have neither been confirmed nor denied by the Blair administration.

But few would be surprised if they were true. In the words of one diplomat: 'Everyone spies on everyone.' There is no reason to presume the UN would be spared such activities.

Mr Annan's office has, equally predictably, reacted angrily to the affair. Branding the espionage illegal, the UN called for it to cease immediately and warned that targeting its chief would undermine efforts to deal with global issues. It is now intending to step up security, including sweeping offices for bugging devices.

But the extent to which the UN has been subjected to the cloak-and-dagger operations of intelligence agents clearly goes further than listening in on Mr Annan. Earlier this week, secrets charges were dropped against a British intelligence translator who leaked details of a US request for her country to spy on members of the UN Security Council during the period leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Meanwhile, an Australian analyst is claiming former UN weapons inspector Richard Butler had his telephone tapped while searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Any information gleaned is said to have been shared between the US, Britain and their allies.

The actions of these intelligence agencies may seem like something out of a John Le Carre novel. But they convey a disturbing message. The United Nations was set up with the aim of preserving world peace. It is, at least in theory, supposed to reflect the will of the international community. The need felt by countries such as Britain and the US to spy on the UN reveals their deep distrust of the organisation and its efforts to find multilateral solutions to global problems. It is a sad indication of the reasons why the UN is currently so weak.

For Mr Blair, the problems are rather closer to home. Polls suggest only one in three British people have faith in him - and next year's general election is approaching. Espionage, by its nature, is a murky business. So Mr Blair's claim that British spies work within the law will cut little ice. The war on Iraq has come back to haunt him again, and in a most embarrassing fashion. He will need all of his famed political skills if his reputation is to emerge unscathed.




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