| Kofi Annan at the UN in New York. (Reuters)
London, Feb. 27 (Reuters): Tony Blair battled today to rise above a row sparked by claims of British subterfuge at the UN but the spying furore snowballed as former UN officials complained their phones had been tapped.
The Prime Minister was addressing a conference of his Labour Party in Scotland where he was expected to steer clear of the bugging charge and focus on domestic issues in yet another bid to put the controversy over the Iraq war behind him.
But the fallout from the bugging charge — made by former British minister Clare Short — proved relentless as former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali and two former UN arms inspectors said they believed they had been spied on.
“From the first day I entered my office they told me: beware, your office is bugged, your residence is bugged,” Boutros-Ghali told the BBC. “It is a tradition that member states that have the technical capacity to bug will do it without hesitation,” he said.
Short, who was in government at the time when London and Washington were seeking UN backing to attack Iraq, kicked up a diplomatic storm with her claim Britain had bugged the offices of UN secretary-general Kofi Annan in the run-up to the war.
Her claim thwarted Blair’s efforts to draw a line under the conflict and focus on the domestic agenda ahead of an expected 2005 general election. British newspapers splashed the “spying scandal” across their front pages.
Short, who resigned after the war, said she had seen transcripts of Annan’s conversations and that the spying “was being done for some time.” Blair declined to address the charge beyond saying British security services acted within domestic and international law.
But Richard Butler, a former chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq, added his voice to the spying row, saying: “There was abundant evidence that we were being constantly monitored.”
“I had to go to the basement cafe in the UN where there was heaps of noise or I’d go and take a walk in Central Park and keep walking” to avoid eavesdroppers, he told BBC Radio.
His successor Hans Blix also said he believed his phone had been tapped, according to media reports from Australia.
The allegations could hinder Blair’s efforts to regain the public’s trust. His trust ratings plummeted in the wake of the Iraq conflict following the failure to find weapons of mass destruction — the primary Anglo-American reason for the war.
He took a further hit over the suicide of a weapons scientist at the heart of a row between the government and the BBC over allegations Blair’s office had deliberately exaggerated the threat from Iraq to support its case for war. An official inquiry cleared Blair of any blame for the suicide but his public image has been damaged.
A YouGov poll for The Daily Telegraph today showed that the “trust” factor remains a thorn in Blair’s side.
Asked whether they thought the government had been honest and trustworthy, 67 percent said“No” while 27 percent said“Yes.”
Blair, though, was the first choice for prime minister over his political rivals, according to the poll.