It’s hard to work up a whole lot of surprise when government snooping operations come to light. After all, we know that spies exist; what do we think they do all day? So last week, when Clare Short, a former minister in Tony Blair’s cabinet, revealed that Britain had bugged the offices of U.N. chief Kofi Annan, some jaded observers brushed off the news off with an everybody-does-it shrug, and Blair hinted that whatever his snoops got up to was no doubt in the national interest.
It’s true that governments, even friendly ones, spy on each other as a matter of course. And yet, there’s something a little shocking in the notion that a government would spy on the mild, courtly Kofi Annan. And that, coupled with the public nature of the charges, will hurt Tony Blair and further strain relations between Britain and the U.S. on one side and the U.N. on the other.
Short, who served in the Blair government as secretary of international development — and who quit in protest at the Iraq war — said she had read transcripts of Mr. Annan’s conversations while she was a member of the government. The British intelligence had been explicitly directed to spy on Annan and other top U.N. officials. Short told the BBC: “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 condemned Short as “deeply irresponsible” and accused her of undermining Britain’s national security:
“I’m not going to comment on the operations of our security services. But I do say this: we act in accordance with domestic and international law, and we act in the best interests of this country, and our security services are a vital part of the protection of this country.”
Short retorted that Blair hadn’t denied her claims — precisely because he knew they were true. If so, the British government’s actions certainly cross a legal line. The 1961 Vienna Convention on
diplomatic relations contain provisions about inviolability of the U.N. premises.
Britain’s Guardian speculates that the U.S. and Britain may have bugged Annan to gauge the U.N.’s attitude toward the planned invasion of Iraq:
“In the last few weeks before the invasion of Iraq it became clear that George Bush, with Tony Blair in tow, was bent on war – and one of the key people standing in his way was the U.N. Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. While the U.S. President was impatient to get on with the attack, regarding Saddam Hussein as a bad guy who should be ousted as soon as possible, the British PM hoped the U.N. would give international backing, but it was not going well. As far as Britain and the US were concerned, the UN was becoming an obstacle to the overthrow of Saddam, rather than a means of facilitating it. …
Whatever Britain might have gleaned from any transcripts of his conversations, it was not enough. The proposed resolution had to be dropped and the war began without it.”
People with first-hand — and often uncomfortable — experience of intelligence gathering said they were unsurprised by Short’s allegations. Former U.N. chief weapons inspector Richard Butler said he was “well aware” that his telephone calls were being monitored during his tenure by the U.S., Britain, France, and Russia. According to another intelligence agent, the phone of the U.N.’s most recent chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, was tapped whenever he was in Iraq hunting for banned weapons, and the information shared between the United States and Britain and their allies.
James Bamford, a specialist in intelligence, explains in the Guardian just how fundamental spying is to intelligence operations. He says that every hour the U.S. and British intelligence agencies intercept millions of telephone calls, emails and faxes.
Bamford describes “Echelon,” a joint snooping operation of the U.S. National Security Agency and its British counterpart, GCHQ, as “the largest espionage organization the world has ever known, one capable of eavesdropping on conversations virtually anywhere on the planet”.
Spain’s ambassador to the U.N. responded to the hubbub over Short’s statement by saying that “everybody spies on everybody.”
One argument holds that snooping is justified today, given the level of concern over imminent terrorist attacks or “rogue countries” possessing nuclear weapons. The Belfast Telegraph suggests that Short violated an unspoken rule in the intelligence community: everyone knows, but no one says:
“For obvious reasons, the public cannot expect to know what went on behind the scenes, and must take a considerable amount on trust. But what applies in Belfast applies around the world, and all governments rely on their intelligence agencies.
This well-established protocol has been broken in no uncertain style by Clare Short, the former Cabinet Minister who has accused the security services of spying on the United Nations.”
But, as an opinion in the Guardian notes, the fact that spying is the norm doesn’t make it right. In fact, it’s illegal and violates public confidence:
“Diplomatic spying takes place. Both the Pakistan embassy in London and the EU offices in Brussels have allegedly been recent targets. But it is also wrong. The Vienna convention governing the conduct of diplomatic relations explicitly bans it. The 1946 convention establishing the UN, signed by the UK, expressly asserts its inviolability (though that does not stop the UN having its own counter-intelligence department). As Mr Annan’s spokesman pointed out, everything the secretary-general does would be undermined if those to whom he spoke lost confidence in the confidentiality of their conversations.
Few would dispute Mr Blair’s assertion that in the era of global terror, the work of the intelligence agencies is more important than ever. It is less obvious that to question it is to compromise it. Indeed, it is because their work is important that public confidence must be nurtured.”
Arguably, of course, in the era of global terror, cooperative ties between allies are more important than ever — and Short’s revelations will do nothing to improve already tense relations between Britain, the U.S. and the U.N. The Economist:
“In the messy aftermath of the Iraq war, America and Britain have tried to patch up their relations with the UN. America has closely consulted Mr Annan about when and how to create a new system of government for Iraq (see article). But tensions remain—and the accusations of spying, which may surprise no one but are rarely aired in such a public way, are hardly likely to help.”
“In 2002, President George Bush said the UN would become “irrelevant” if it did not enforce its own resolutions against Saddam Hussein, and the organisation subsequently did balk at approving America’s march to war. It now seems ironic that America and Britain have apparently been caught spying on officials of a supposedly “irrelevant” organisation.”
Considering that both Bush and Blair are under fire in their respective countries for questions over Iraqi and WMD intelligence, this new information won’t sit well. The Seattle-Post Intelligencer:
“British Prime Minister Tony Blair says former Cabinet minister Clare Short’s allegations are “deeply irresponsible.” But the very same condemnation surely could be made of spying on U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan during the run-up to the Iraq war.
The stain of this new scandal surely will taint the White House as well. At best, snooping on diplomats at U.N. headquarters is inhospitable. At worst, it may be illegal.
If true, these allegations would, if nothing else, suggest that the Blair and Bush administrations were both desperate and paranoid in their efforts to persuade the world go to war in Iraq.”