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Get the Bugs Out of the U.N.

March 05, 2004

Henry L. Stimson was secretary of State in 1929 when he shut down the State Department's "cipher bureau" with the admonition that "gentlemen do not read each other's mail." But as Franklin Delano Roosevelt's secretary of War more than a decade later, Stimson agreed to the need for spying. It all depends on whom the target is.

Nations large and small always have tried to ferret out each other's secrets. But there is a great difference between pumping an informant and installing listening devices or wiretaps in the office of someone who is not an enemy -- U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, for instance.

Last week a former British Cabinet minister, Clare Short, told the BBC that British intelligence agents had secretly intercepted Annan's conversations in his New York offices before the war in Iraq last year. Short said she had seen transcripts of the conversations, though she did not say how they were obtained.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair refused to confirm or deny Short's claim; he contented himself with calling the disclosure "deeply irresponsible."

That comment is as far short of the mark as the reaction of most diplomats at the United Nations and elsewhere: a shrug of the shoulders and a comment that such intrusions are taken for granted. The proper response should be outrage.

Stephen C. Schlesinger, author of "Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations," said espionage had been an integral part of the U.N. since its founding in 1945. During the Cold War, Soviet and U.S. electronics experts spied on each other's delegations and their foe's allies. The practice apparently continues. The day before Short's interview, Britain ruled against prosecuting whistle-blower Katharine Gun, a former government translator who admitted leaking to Britain's Observer newspaper in February 2003 a U.S. request for help in bugging U.N. diplomats.

There is disagreement on whether bugging Annan's office would be legal. But even if the spying broke no laws, Annan's job requires that he be an honest broker between nations. That isn't possible if his conversations are being circulated among intelligence agents and heads of state.

Washington has belatedly and reluctantly realized the importance of the U.N. in Iraq; the foolish bluster about its irrelevance has ended and the U.S. should not try to antagonize the secretary-general. Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said those who spoke to the secretary-general were "entitled to assume that their exchanges are confidential." Exactly.

Annan did not address the issue publicly. If he feels he can be more effective with a private protest to the British, the soft-spoken career diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize winner should use the strongest language possible.

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