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Ex-Minister Declares British Eavesdropped on U.N. Chief

By Patrick E. Tyler

The New York Times -- LONDON

A former member of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Cabinet asserted Thursday that British intelligence services conducted electronic surveillance of the U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan, in the run-up to the Iraq war.

The former minister, Clare Short, who is still a member of Parliament, received a harsh rebuke from Blair, who told a news conference that Short had endangered Britain’s national security with her “totally irresponsible” remarks. He would not comment on any allegations about espionage operations.

At the United Nations in New York, Annan’s spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said at a news conference that it would be illegal to conduct electronic spying at the United Nations and that Annan would be disappointed if Britain had bugged his conversations.

Eckhard said efforts were under way to ensure the security of Annan’s confidential conversations. He refused to say whether any listening devices had been found in Annan’s office.

“We’re throwing down a red flag and saying that if this is true, please stop it,” Eckhard said.

The U.N. news conference added to the diplomatic embarrassment for Blair, who was said to be outraged that a member of his own Labor Party had spoken publicly about one of the most sensitive types of espionage.

Michael Howard, the Tory opposition leader, called Thursday’s developments “a complete mess” for Britain.

The diplomatic tempest began when Short, who initially supported the war but later resigned from the Cabinet after the fall of Baghdad, told a BBC radio interviewer on Thursday morning that transcripts of Annan’s private conversations were circulated last year among Blair’s Cabinet members.

“I read some of the transcripts of the accounts of his conversations,” she said, asserting that Annan’s office was bugged. “These things are done, and in the case of Kofi’s office, it’s been done for some time.”

She said she was so certain of the surveillance that she recalled “having conversations with Kofi in the run-up to war, thinking: ’Oh dear, there will be a transcript of this, and people see what he and I are saying.”’

Short’s remarks reflected the continued hemorrhaging of secrets related to espionage conducted during the bare-knuckled political debate at the United Nations in March 2003, as the Bush administration and Blair’s government sought to overcome resistance from France, Germany, Russia and a number of smaller states that were opposed to a resolution that would authorize the Iraq war.

Short’s blunt disclosure -- which a number of experts said appeared to be a violation of the Official Secrets Act -- underscored the unpopularity of the war in Britain a year on and the bitterness that has developed between Blair and a sizable contingent of rebels within his own party.

The revelation of targeted espionage in the executive suites of the United Nations came a day after Blair’s government declined to prosecute a 29-year-old government linguist, Katharine Gun, who admitted leaking details of another bugging operation, also aimed at the United Nations, during the war debate last year.