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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 February, 2004, 00:44 GMT
UN shrugs off bugging furore

By Susannah Price
BBC UN correspondent

Officials and diplomats at the United Nations headquarters in New York do not appear to be too surprised by the allegations, made by the former British government minister Clare Short, that the British spied on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Kofi Annan's office
Those speaking to Kofi Annan will be uncomfortable if they thought someone was listening in

"Sounds like business as usual" muttered one diplomat. Few were prepared to go on the record about their experiences.

However the general feeling is that it is impossible to guarantee privacy in UN offices or the missions to the UN.

"We are aware of this, it's always in the back of our minds," said one UN official. "We do go outside our offices down to the canteen or outside if we want to have a private conversation."

A former UN chief weapons inspector Richard Butler has said he is certain he was bugged while at the UN.

His concern is that heads of state or any political actors who deal with him over the telephone might be a little less forthcoming if they think someone might be listening in
Fred Eckhard, UN Secretary General's spokesman
And former Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali said he was told on the first day in the post that his office and residence were bugged.

Last year it was alleged that the United States had been carrying out a surveillance operation on delegations from six missions, all Security Council members, during the lead up to the Iraq war.

And a recent book on the founding of the UN by American academic Stephen Schlesinger has revealed how at that time the United States spied on the countries signing up to the UN charter.

Security stepped up

The offices at the UN, including that of the secretary general, are routinely swept for listening devices.

The staff say this means they are not so concerned about the possibility of bugging devices listening into face to face conversations, but more worried about phone calls.

Those around the Secretary General say he does not take extra precautions to ensure his privacy apart from using secure telephone or fax lines when appropriate.

This kind of security is being stepped up.

The UN secretary general's spokesman Fred Eckhard stressed that Mr Annan has nothing to hide but added there were concerns that his sensitive diplomatic work could be hampered if those he spoke to believed the phones were bugged.

"His concern is the heads of state or any political actors who deal with him over the telephone might be a little less forthcoming if they think someone might be listening in," said Mr Eckhard.

The secretary general is still waiting for a fuller explanation from the British authorities. He spoke to the British Ambassador to the United Nations on Thursday morning but has not had any further contact.

Clare Short
Ms Short sparked off the bugging debate by comments that the UK spied on the UN
The British Prime Minister Tony Blair says the government acted within domestic and international law.

The UN now appears to be trying to play down the issue which many here believe is chiefly concerned with British domestic politics.

The secretary general slipped out of the UN Secretariat building on Friday without commenting and his office has stopped giving interviews about the allegations.




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