Late last month, Tony Blair seemed to believe that his much repeated wish to “move on” from the Iraq war could be realised. With interest in the conflict reportedly fading, and new policy announcements planned, the Prime Minister could not have expected or cursed more the timing of Clare Short’s allegations of British at the UN.
The former International Development Secretary had been invited by BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to discuss the collapse of the case against the GCHQ whistle-blower, Katherine Gun. Instead, she revealed to an unsuspecting presenter John Humphreys that Britain had been involved in violating the privacy of the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. Short asserted that she knew transcripts were being made of his conversations, and those of other member states’ diplomats.
If true, her charges are deeply embarrassing for the British government, both in the international arena and at home. If GCHQ, the UK’s secret intelligence interception base at Cheltenham, wishes to spy on domestic land, it requires a warrant from the Home Secretary. Because the UN headquarters in New York is considered sovereign territory, if the UK security services were found to have bugged offices of diplomats there, they would be in breach of international law.
With reports that Annan felt “personally betrayed” and fears that spying activities would undermine the confidential nature of diplomatic exchanges the UN issued a statement calling for the immediate cessation of such activity, if indeed, it was being carried out.
Blair had the opportunity, or was compelled, to attempt to silence the domestic backlash at his monthly televised press conference which happened to occur on the same day as Short’s allegations. Claiming that her actions put the safety of this country at risk by compromising the work of the UK’s security agencies, Mr Blair labelled her behaviour as “deeply irresponsible.”
Usually so well managed, February’s press conference failed to hide the strains that the spying assertions have put on the Prime Minister. Mr Blair largely refused to answer journalists’ questions, insisting that governments did not comment on the work of intelligence services. This refusal, therefore, included no categorical denial of Ms Short’s claims. But Mr Blair was at pains to emphasise that this evasiveness did not amount to an admission of guilt.
Meanwhile, opposition party leaders have called for clarity. Michael Howard, the Tory Party leader, labelled the situation a “complete mess” while Charles Kennedy demanded that the “Prime Minister must come clean.”
Tony Blair’s position has been further weakened by his refusal to be draw into a discussion of the legality of the Iraq war raised in conjunction with the Gun case. After seeing an e-mail whilst working at Cheltenham in her role as an interpreter, she “followed her conscience” and leaked it to the Observer.
The e-mail was a suggestion from America’s National Security Agency that GCHQ should spy on the six swing-vote nations on the UN security council in the run-up to military action in Iraq. Charged under the Official Secrets Act, Gun’s case was thrown out when it was revealed that in order to prosecute her, the government would have to make known the legal advice it received for going to war.
Many think this evidence is flawed but Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, who issued the advice, unsurprisingly insists that the case wasn’t dropt for this reason or for any political motive. This seems strange peculiar, when one considers how the decision saves the government from a lengthy, public reassessment of the case for war.
Are Short’s revelations really all that surprising? If we consider the situation objectively, espionage is bound to be happening in international organisations such as the UN. The benefits for the nations involved in bugging are huge.
Whistle-blowers serve an important role in democratic society: of reminding us that these activities are likely to be taking place. It is an unpleasant reality, but it is reality all the same.