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U.N.: UK spying 'illegal' if true

Blair: Intelligence agents "always act in accordance with domestic and international law."

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U.N. troubled by accusations that British agents spied on Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
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Kofi Annan
Tony Blair
United Nations
Espionage and Intelligence

UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- The United Nations said alleged British spying on Secretary-General Kofi Annan's office, if true, is illegal and must stop immediately.

U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said Thursday the world agency "would be disappointed" if claims that British spies listened in on Annan's conversations turned out to be true.

Commenting on allegations by former British Cabinet minister Clare Short, Eckhard said such actions would be "illegal" under international conventions.

"We would be disappointed if this were true," Eckhard said. "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."

Eckhard said routine measures to guard against such tapping would be heightened.

Earlier Thursday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called Short's claims "deeply irresponsible" and said they threatened the security of the country.

Blair, speaking to reporters in London, refused to respond directly to Short's charge that UK intelligence agents had bugged Annan ahead of the war in Iraq.

"I'm not going to comment on their operations," Blair told a news conference. "That should not be taken as any indication about the truth of any particular accusations."

Blair said intelligence agents "always act in accordance with domestic and international law."

"Whether intentionally or not, those who do attack the work our security services are doing undermine the essential security of this country," Blair said. "The fact that those allegations were made, I think, is deeply irresponsible."

Short, who resigned as international development secretary following the campaign to topple Saddam Hussein, said in a radio interview Thursday morning that she had read transcripts of Annan's conversations.

"The UK in this time was also getting, spying on Kofi Annan's office and getting reports from him about what was going on," she 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."'

Former Cabinet member Clare Short

Asked explicitly whether British spies had been instructed to carry out operations within the United Nations on people such as Kofi Annan, she said: "Yes, absolutely."

When asked if such actions were legal, she said: "I don't know. I presume so. It's odd."

Short was one of two Cabinet members to resign in protest against Britain's participation in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Robin Cook, a former foreign secretary, resigned as leader of the House of Commons before the campaign began.

Short's comments came a day after charges were dropped against a British government translator accused of leaking a memo on an alleged U.S. "dirty tricks" campaign ahead of the Iraq war.

Katharine Gun, 29, a former Mandarin translator with Britain's Government Communications Headquarters listening station, allegedly leaked a memo from U.S. intelligence officers asking their British counterparts to spy on members of the U.N. Security Council before the Iraq war. (Full story)

The charge against Gun was dropped after prosecutors said they would offer no evidence against her.

Blair told reporters Thursday the decision not to go ahead with the case was taken by counsel on "evidential and legal grounds" and not for "other reasons."

"I played no part in the discontinuance of the prosecution," he said. "My understanding is that it is to do with their belief that they could not secure a conviction based on legal and technical reasons."

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