LONDON - British intelligence agents were involved in intercepting conversations of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the weeks before the Iraq war, according to a former Cabinet member in Prime Minister Tony Blair's administration who said she read the transcripts.
The highly unusual revelation by Clare Short, former international development secretary, made public what has long been an unspoken assumption among foreign diplomats in the United States: Their phone calls and office conversations are routinely intercepted by the National Security Agency and its British equivalent, the Government Communications Headquarters, which work closely together.
"I have seen transcripts of Kofi Annan's conversations," Short told a British Broadcasting Corp. interviewer. "Indeed, 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.'"
Short's statement - the second leak about U.S. and British eavesdropping at the United Nations since last year - put Blair in the awkward position of denouncing her indiscretion without admitting the truth of her claim.
Blair called her statement "totally irresponsible." But he refused to confirm or deny the allegations, saying that no prime minister or president "anywhere in the world" would discuss spy operations, even to refute false charges.
At U.N. headquarters in New York, a spokesman for Annan said that if the charges were true, Annan was "disappointed" and wanted the eavesdropping stopped.
"Such activities would undermine the integrity and confidential nature of diplomatic exchanges," spokesman Fred Eckhard said. "Those who speak to the secretary-general are entitled to assume that their exchanges are confidential."
He said Annan's office "routinely takes technical measures" to prevent eavesdropping. "Those efforts will now be intensified," Eckhard said.
That, said a former NSA official, is exactly why the spy agencies shudder when evidence of their eavesdropping is trumpeted in public.
"Every time something is leaked, it alerts the targets to tighten up their communications security," said Mike Levin, who worked for the NSA at Fort Meade from 1947 to 1993, retiring as chief of information policy. "That makes NSA's job a lot more difficult."
Levin, like other intelligence veterans, said the United States routinely eavesdrops on diplomats and U.N. officials in order to understand their private thinking and plans.
Under a half-century-old arrangement among the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the countries' eavesdropping agencies coordinate their work and share the results.
"What they're doing is what every nation in the world has always done: gathering as much information as possible," Levin said. "Anyone who suggests this is shocking is being foolish."
Short made her claims on Radio 4, part of the BBC, while being interviewed about a decision Wednesday by prosecutors here to abandon a criminal case against Katharine Gun under Britain's Official Secrets Act.
Gun, a 29-year-old Chinese linguist for GCHQ, had acknowledged leaking a top-secret NSA memo that detailed plans to boost eavesdropping on the U.N. delegations of six countries last year as the United States sought a U.N. Security Council vote in favor of using force against Iraq.
"The U.K. in this time was also spying on Kofi Annan's office and getting reports from him about what was going on," Short said in the interview. "These things are done, and in the case of Kofi's office, it was being done for some time."
Asked whether British agents were involved, she replied, "Yes, absolutely."
Intelligence experts said yesterday that it was more likely that the NSA intercepted Annan's conversations, though the GCHQ might have assisted and certainly received the resulting transcripts.
Short is viewed somewhat as a loose cannon whose estrangement from Blair did not end with her resignation. Although a member of his Labor Party, she is a fixture on television news shows in Britain and rarely misses an opportunity to criticize him. She has repeatedly called on him to resign for what she said was misleading the country to ally itself against Iraq with the United States.
Before the war, she had threatened to resign her Cabinet post if Blair took the country to war. She changed her mind, cast a vote in the House of Commons in support of the invasion - then resigned in May, saying she was protesting the lack of U.N. involvement in rebuilding.
Blair was clearly perturbed during his news conference and acknowledged that "conspiracy theorists" would interpret his comments as a government cover-up of illegal spying.
The prime minister has faced a drubbing in the British media for months for his conduct before the war - chief among the criticisms being that he exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein - and his popularity has fallen as a result.
Stressing repeatedly that he was not confirming Short's allegations, he said her remarks were "deeply disappointing" and anyone who held such a high position in government and discussed intelligence operations was putting the country's national security at risk.
"I'm not going to comment on the operations of our security services," Blair said in his news conference, which had been scheduled before Short made her remarks. "But I do say this: We act in accordance with domestic and international law, and we act in the best interests of this country, and our security services are a vital part of the protection of this country."
Conservative leader Michael Howard, a probable candidate against Blair, called Blair's government "a complete mess."
"It's about time the prime minister got a grip on it and sorted it out," he said.
U.S. laws and regulations permit the NSA to eavesdrop on international communications, which include any phone conversation, fax or e-mail with at least one end on foreign territory. Because the United Nations complex in New York is technically "extraterritorial" - not U.S. soil under the law - U.S. spies have broad authority to eavesdrop on conversations there, said Matthew M. Aid, an intelligence historian.
On U.S. territory, the NSA can eavesdrop on foreigners' phone calls or place bugs in their rooms if it gets a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret court that meets at the Justice Department in Washington. In 2002, court records show, it approved 1,228 such warrants.
The status of such eavesdropping under international law is not so clear.
While the United States has signed international agreements that protect the privacy of communications, the law recognizes a "self-defense exception" permitting spying that trumps those agreements, according to a former U.S. intelligence agency lawyer.
Aid, who is writing a book on the NSA, said he has been told by intelligence officials that the leak last year of the NSA memo ordering extra eavesdropping on the U.N. delegations of Angola, Cameroon, Guinea, Chile, Bulgaria and Pakistan did put diplomats on guard and reduced the intelligence harvest.
"The easiest communications security procedure that any country can take, even the poorest African country, is to stop talking about sensitive things on the phone," Aid said. "That's what some of these countries have done."