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2004-02-27

Blair Offers No Denial To UN Spying Allegations

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British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday refused to confirm or deny the accusation by former British Cabinet member Clare Short that British intelligence agents spied on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in the run up to the Iraq war. [includes transcript]

Former British Cabinet member Clare Short, has accused British intelligence agents of spying on U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in the run up to the Iraq war. She told the BBC she had read transcripts of private conversations of Annan.

Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday refused to confirm or deny the accusation saying, "I’m not going to comment on the operations of our security services." He added, "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 responded by accusing Blair of using "pompous" distraction tactics and denied putting the UK or its security services at risk. Short, who quit the Caniet last May over the invasion of Iraq, has accused Blair of being "reckless" and misleading the country, and has repeatedly called on him to resign.

Last year the Observer of London reported that the US and Britain carried out a dirty tricks campaign by spying on officials from Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria, Guinea and Pakistan in the lead up to the UN vote on Iraq.

This week the source of the Observer article, government whistleblower Katherine Gun was cleared of violating the country’s Official Secrets Act after the government presented no evidence against her.

  • Martin Bright, reporter with the Observer newspaper of London

Related Democracy Now! coverage

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Former British cabinet member, Claire Short, has accused British intelligence agents of spying on U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. She told the BBC she had read transcripts of private conversations of Annan. Prime minister Tony Blair yesterday responded to the allegation.

TONY BLAIR: 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. So, I’m not going to comment on their operations, not directly, not indirectly. That should not be taken, as I say, as any indication about the truth of any particular allegations, and I think the fact that those allegations were made, I think, is deeply irresponsible.

AMY GOODMAN: Prime Minister Tony Blair responding to reporters yesterday. The allegation is that the British government spied on Kofi Annan. Former cabinet minister, Claire Short, responded by accusing Blair of using pompous distraction tactics and denied putting Britain or its security services at risk. Last year, The Observer of London reported the U.S. And Britain carried out a dirty tricks campaign by spying on officials from Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria, Guinea and Pakistan in the lead-up to the U.N. vote the war in Iraq. They were all members of the U.N. Security Council. This week, the source of the article, government whistleblower, Katherine Gun was cleared of violating the country’s Official Secrets Act after the government presented no evidence against her. We’re joined on the telephone right now by Martin Bright, a reporter from The Observer newspaper of London who broke the story. He is driving in Britain and is on a cell phone. Welcome to Democracy Now!.

MARTIN BRIGHT: Hello there. I pulled over on the side of the road. Driving with a mobile phone is illegal now in this country. It’s probably best that I have done that.

AMY GOODMAN: Very good. Well, can you tell us about the latest allegations.

MARTIN BRIGHT: Yeah. I mean, the allegations are, in a sense, what we suspected were happening already. We knew that Kofi Annan’s office was being bugged. We had the news this morning from the International Australian Broadcasting Company that the chief weapons inspector’s, Hans Blix’s, phones were also bugged. In a sense it’s all very well, we’re getting cynical about this and saying that we always suspected that this was happening. The point is that we didn’t know and now we have evidence on two fronts. We have Claire Short’s evidence that she has seen transcripts, the British Cabinet Ministry’s evidence. And we have the hard documentary evidence that we have produced in The Observer last year of a bugging operation that was ordered by the American National Security Agency on the manipulations that we believe the British government communications headquarters acted on.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the — how is this being played in the British press right now?

MARTIN BRIGHT: Well, it’s a huge story. It’s all over the front pages. I mean, it’s taken a year to catch up with it, but it’s really taken off. It is deeply embarrassing for the government, for Tony Blair, who has been trying to shake off stories about Iraq over the last few months.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Martin Bright, a reporter with The Observer newspaper of London. It was very striking that the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, did not refute the charges.

MARTIN BRIGHT: That’s right. I mean, it’s — of course, it would not be any breach of the Official Secrets Act if he had evidence that this hadn’t happened, and he denied it: What would have been the problem? That’s as you the case, isn’t it? It’s the same with the story of the bugging of the swing nations in the run-up to the war. In fact, the government is always eager to deny things when they’re not true. In this case, if Claire Short was wrong, there would be no security implications and the prime minister would say she was wrong. It’s quite clear that the refusal to make a statement is a significant hint that she is in fact right.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Claire Short actually has the transcript now of the private conversations of Kofi Annan?

MARTIN BRIGHT: I don’t know. I suspect not. I will say, it does seem that she is rolling back from saying that it was definitely British intelligence officers that did the spying. I think she saw the transcripts. You know, there’s no reason to think that she is not telling the truth, but what exactly their origin was,–I don’t think she knows.

AMY GOODMAN: In other words, perhaps, hypothetically, it could have been the U.S. that had given these transcripts to Britain?

MARTIN BRIGHT: Yeah. I mean, in a sense. The U.S.'s National Security Agency and Britain's agency are one in the same. They operate as a single unit, really. There is no real kind of national boundary between the two. Having spoken to intelligence sources myself, the feeling is that they work for each other.

AMY GOODMAN: Martin Bright, can you talk about Katherine Gun?

MARTIN BRIGHT: Yeah. I mean, it was a remarkable week. Katherine Gun always acted out of conscience, and it became clear when she could finally talk about what she had done, that that was precisely why she had leaked the memo that she had seen about the bugging operation on the United Nations. She felt that it compromised the institution of the United Nations where people should be able to speak freely. Again, you know, it’s all very well people are being cynical about it, but Kathrine Gun’s shock was genuine. She felt that in the run-up to a war, this kind of operation would be on beyond the pale.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re referring to the operation of spying on the members of the U.N. Security Council?

MARTIN BRIGHT: That’s correct. I think there’s a feeling — there’s certainly problems with the Chilean and Mexican representatives at the United Nations. Even seasoned ambassadors and seasoned members of the international diplomatic community were shocked by the fact that Britain and the U.S. felt it necessary to bug the delegations when they could have simply asked the ambassadors what it tended to do in the vote on the second resolution justifying war and they would have simply told them.

AMY GOODMAN: Martin Bright, we had you on when you broke this story. I remember right afterwards, you were concerned, not only was Katherine Gun arrested, but the possibility that they were going to try to subpoena your records or arrest you for revealing this.

MARTIN BRIGHT: It has happened before. They did a process, but the lawyers at The Observer made it clear there would be no cooperation and they haven’t been back since. I think the lawyers in Britain have learned that journalists tend not to betray their sources, and that they will be prepared to go to any lengths not to do that. I was also concerned that other intermediaries would be charged. That actually didn’t happen either. I can only hope that this encourages more people to come forward who know more about this matter. Clearly, it’s a case that they would have to do so without breaching the Official Secrets Act, which makes it difficult, and Katherine Gun has now opened up a defense, which is now known as the defense of necessity, that if you reveal wrongdoing to save human lives, that is permitted in the British law.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re back on the issue of the spying of Kofi Annan. His spokesperson at the United Nations, Fred Eckert, did respond to the allegations.

FRED ECKERT: We have seen today media reports alleging that the secretary general’s phone conversations were tapped by British intelligence. We would be disappointed if this were true. Such activities would undermine the integrity and confidential nature of diplomatic exchanges. Those who speak to the Secretary General are entitled to assume that their exchanges are confidential. The Secretary General, therefore would want this practice stopped if indeed it exists. The secretariat routinely takes technical measures to guard against such invasions of privacy, and those efforts will now be intensified.

AMY GOODMAN: Fred Eckert, spokesperson for the U.N. Secretary General, speaking yesterday in New York at the United Nations. Martin Bright, I want to thank you very much for joining us, of The Observer of London, broke the Katherine Gun story. Katherine Gun, who had leaked the information that the members of the security council, a number of countries were being spied on in the invasion and lead-up to Iraq, the invasion of Iraq. When we come back, a debate on electronic voting. Stay with us.

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