European papers had a field day with reports that, before the Iraq war, the British government spied on U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. A former British Cabinet minister, Clare Short, made the allegation during a BBC interview, and it spelled yet more Iraq-war-related trouble for Labor PM Tony Blair. (Blair refused to say if the charge is true.) Many papers opined, however, that eavesdropping is just business as usual.
Some of the harshest criticism came from Spain’s El País, which blasted Blair for thinking that “he had a universal license to spy and lie on the road to the Iraq war. But history is stubborn, and the … war trickery will continue to stalk Tony Blair for some time.” Italy’s Corriere della Sera noted that Blair’s—and Britain’s—problem goes much deeper than the question of whether or not it sanctioned wiretapping. The real issue, it said, is “the lack of political credibility—both at home and abroad—linked to Iraq and his total alignment with the policy of the United States.” Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza said that the charges “suggest that the British and US governments tried to justify their plan of action (over Iraq) and—by fair means or foul—to convince others.” (Translations courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)
The British tabloids jettisoned these concerns and turned their ire on Short. A piece in the Sun,with the blunt headline “Sack Labor Rebel Short,” pointed to broad demands that the Labor whip be disciplined for her comments, which were a threat to national security. In its editorial, the paper blasted that Short “has committed the ultimate act of treachery. … For a former Cabinet Minister to blab like this is unpardonable,” and Blair should strip her of all her posts and expel her from the party.
Short, who resigned her post of international development secretary after Britain and the United States launched the Iraq war, is fighting back. The Scottish Daily Record reported that Short rebutted Blair’s criticism of her disclosures, saying over the weekend that “Tony is running this country in a deeply, deeply personal way and the institutions we have to get these decisions right are crumbling and being personalized.” And she told the London Guardian, “I am not trembling in my shoes.”
The timing of her revelations was unfortunate for Blair, whose credibility has sustained a series of blows related to his rationale for going to war in Iraq. Despite the fact that he’s suffered in public opinion polls, a Guardian columnist questioned whether the public’s current discontent will really harm Blair. Used-car salesmen, realtors, journalists, and politicians consistently top the list of the least-trusted professions, the column noted, but people keep buying used cars and homes, they keep reading newspapers, and they still need politicians to lead. “Trust, in truth, is one of those mushy poll concepts, a source of mush questions bringing only mush answers.” He concluded that Blair’s future still looks plenty bright.
We may never know whether Mr. Annan was actually bugged and if so, in what circumstances. But sometimes a government and its security services have to take actions in pursuit of national interests which somehow transcend personal relationships. To torpedo such work, and deter potential sources from assisting our secret services in their efforts to defend the country, is more than “totally irresponsible,” as the Prime Minister said of Miss Short’s actions. It is disgraceful, and it is certainly not ethical.
A Telegraph columnist noted that there is a difference between conversations overheard via radio and airwave interception and those recorded in a deliberate bugging operation. The means by which Annan’s conversations were captured, if indeed they were, may never be known, but “this is an electronic world. Governments and organizations which expect not to be overheard should go into another business.”