The controversy over alleged British and American "dirty tricks" at the United Nations deepened yesterday with claims that two chiefs of Iraq arms inspection missions had been victims of spying.
Hans Blix and Richard Butler were said to have been subjected to routine bugging while they led teams searching for Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction.
In an interview published today, Dr Blix said he suspected his UN office and New York home had been bugged by the United States in the run-up to war. He said bugging was to be expected between enemies, but "here it is between people who co-operate and it is an unpleasant feeling".
The new charges came within 24 hours of the former cabinet minister Clare Short stating British intelligence had taped the telephone calls of the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan.
As demands grew at home and abroad for Tony Blair to confirm or deny Ms Short's allegations, the British ambassador to the UN, Emyr Jones-Parry, telephoned Mr Annan on Thursday evening. The UN said Mr Jones-Parry's call has not shed any fresh light on the matter. Edward Mortimer, Mr Annan's director of communications, said: "There was a telephone call which was apologetic in tone but did not really amount to an admission of substance. Basically, the answer we got was the same as the Prime Minister gave at his press conference [on Thursday]. We are not complete innocents, we do realize these things happen but it was rather a shock to hear that the British government had been spying on the secretary general."
Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said Mr Blair should make a statement to MPs on the affair.He will table a Commons motion next week demanding to know if there was an "eavesdropping operation", and if so, how extensive it was. Mr Kennedy said: "We need to know whether British intelligence took part in spying on the United Nations secretary general. This is a serious allegation, made by a member of Mr Blair's Cabinet, which cannot go unanswered. The United Kingdom was one of the founding members of the UN ... the suggestion that our security services were involved in some kind of illegal operation damages our national standing."
Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Mr Annan's predecessor as secretary general, said: "This is a violation of the United Nations charter. It complicates the work of the secretary general, of the diplomats, because they need a minimum of secrecy to reach a solution." Mr Butler, who led the UN disarmament team in Iraq in the 1990s, UNSCOM, said he was "well aware" that he was being bugged. But he said spying on the UN was illegal and harmed the peace-making process. "What if Kofi Annan had been bringing people together last February in a genuine attempt to prevent the invasion of Iraq, and the people bugging him did not want that to happen, what do you think they would do with that information?" he said.
The alleged bugging of Dr Blix, in charge of the last UN mission before the war, seen as the last chance to avoid war, is being viewed in diplomatic circles as part of a concerted effort to sabotage attempts at a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis. Dr Blix, who retired in June, is highly critical of George Bush and Tony Blair for the claims they made about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction. Washington and London, he said, had aborted the search for weapons to pave the way for an invasion.
In an interview that appears in The Guardian today, he said he had expected to be bugged by the Iraqis, but the possibility that he was spied on by someone "on the same side" was "disgusting". Dr Blix said his suspicions were aroused by repeated trouble with his telephone at his New York home. His fears worsened when a member of the US administration showed him photographs that could only have come from the UN weapons office. He met John Wolf, the US assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation, two weeks before war started and was shown two pictures of Iraqi weapons. "He should not have had them. I asked him how he got them and he would not tell me and I said I resented that," he said.
Dr Blix said it was unlikely one of his staff had handed over the pictures and thought it might be that spies broke into a secure fax. In his reports to the UN, Dr Blix, and his fellow inspection team leader, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, had asked for more time to investigate Iraq's arsenal, a plea rejected by Washington and London.
The claims of espionage against Dr Blix emerged in the Australian media, sourced to a member of the country's intelligence service. Yesterday a senior UN source confirmed to The Independent that the Iraq mission, UNMOVIC, were convinced they were victims of spying operations. Reports say Dr Blix's mobile telephone was monitored every time he went to Iraq, and the transcripts shared between the US, Britain and their allies, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
Yesterday, a UN official said: "While in the Canal Hotel in Baghdad [the UNMOVIC headquarters at the time], we never used to talk about anything sensitive in our rooms because we thought the Iraqis might be bugging us. We used to go outside to the garden.
"It is one of the ironies of life that back in New York we would sometimes take similar measures, discuss things we thought should be confidential, out of the office, in public places, sometimes the sidewalk.
"The only saving grace is that neither Dr Blix or anyone else among us would speak about sensitive matters on mobile telephones, so they would not have heard anything earth-shattering just by that. But I suspect there were other, more widespread interceptions. There were plenty of attempts to undermine us."
Dr Blix's predecessor, Mr Butler, now the governor of Tasmania, said he was shown transcripts of bugged conversations. "Those who did it would come to me and show me the recordings that they made on others. 'To try to help me to do my job in disarming Iraq', they would say. 'We're just here to help you'," Mr Butler said. But the former UN chief inspector maintained that it was not only Britain which was spying. He said: "I was utterly confident that in my attempts to have private conversations, trying to solve the problem of disarmament of Iraq, I was being listened to by the Americans, British, the French and the Russians. They also had people on my staff reporting what I was trying to do privately. Do you think that was paranoia? Absolutely not. There was abundant evidence that we were being constantly monitored."
Mr Butler said that he too had to hold sensitive conversations in the noisy cafeteria in the basement of the UN building in New York or in Central Park.
"We were brought to a situation where it was plain silly to think we could have any serious conversation in our office. No one was being paranoid, everyone had a black sense of humor about it.
"I would take a walk with the person in the park and speak in a low voice and keep moving so we could avoid directional microphones and maybe just have a private conversation."
Mr Boutros-Ghali also described the vulnerability of the organization to espionage. "From the first day I entered my office they said, 'Beware, your office is bugged, your residence is bugged, and it is a tradition that the member states who have the technical capacity to bug will do it without any hesitation.' That would involve members of the Security Council," he said. "The perception is that you must know in advance that your office, your residence, your car, your phone is bugged."
Richard Butler Former UN chief weapons inspector
He said he was "well aware" that he was being bugged at the UN. "How did I know? Because those who did it would come to me and show me the recordings that they had made on others to help me do my job disarming Iraq." He asked: "What if Kofi Annan had been bringing people together last February in a genuine attempt to prevent the invasion of Iraq, and the people bugging him did not want that to happen, what do you think they would do with that information?"
Boutros Boutros-Ghali Former UN secretary general
He said he was warned that he was likely to be bugged as soon as he started the job. "From the first day I entered my office, they said: 'Beware; your office is bugged, your residence is bugged, and it is a tradition that the member states who have the technical capacity to bug will do it without any hesitation.' That would involve members of the Security Council. The perception is that you must know in advance that your office, your residence, your car, your phone is bugged."
© 2004 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd