British intelligence agents spied on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in the run-up to the Iraq war, a former member of Prime Minister Tony Blair's Cabinet said yesterday.
Clare Short, who resigned as international development secretary following the campaign to topple former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, said 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 said.
Blair's office said it would not comment on intelligence matters, adding that British agents always acted within the law.
"We never comment on intelligence matters," said a spokesman for Blair, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Our intelligence and security agencies act in accordance with national and international law at all times."
When asked to clarify her comments, Short repeated her allegation.
"These things are done. And in the case of Kofi's office, it's been done for some time," she said.
Asked whether Britain was involved, she said: "Well I know, 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.'"
Asked explicitly whether British spies had been instructed to carry out operations within the UN on people such as Kofi Annan, she said: "Yes, absolutely."
Short's comments came as she was interviewed about the decision made Wednesday to drop legal proceedings against a former intelligence employee who leaked a confidential memo raising concerns about spying in the UN.
Katharine Gun, 29, a former Mandarin translator with Britain's Government Communications Headquarters listening station, allegedly leaked a memo from US intelligence officers asking their British counterparts to spy on members of the UN Security Council before the Iraq war.
The charge against Gun was dropped after prosecutors said they would offer no evidence against her.
But opposition politicians have questioned whether the decision was politically motivated, and whether the government intervened to stop the case, fearing disclosure of further embarrassing details about the case for war.
The government has in recent months been criticized for its presentation of intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
"My own suspicion is that the attorney general has stopped this prosecution because part of her [Gun's] defense was to question the legality and that would have brought his advice into the public domain again and there was something fishy about the way in which he said war was legal," Short said.
The memo, leaked to The Observer, asked the British listening agency for help bugging delegates' home and office telephones and e-mail. At the time, the US was seeking to win Security Council backing for war in Iraq.
The Observer quoted the memo, dated Jan. 31. 2003, as asking British and US intelligence staff to step up surveillance operations "particularly directed at ... UN Security Council Members (minus US and GBR, of course)."
Gun's lawyers speculated the case was dropped because they had demanded the government disclose advice it received from Attorney General Lord Goldsmith on the legality of going to war. Ministers have repeatedly refused to make the advice public.