When I admitted we were spying on Kofi Annan all hell broke lose. It remains true that this was the case and that the government’s response was disproportionate and disingenuous.
On 25 February, 2004, criminal charges for breaching the Official Secrets Act against Katharine Gunn were dropped.
She had worked at GCHQ, the agency responsible for government eavesdropping, and had leaked a document to The Observer which showed that the US had asked the UK for help in bugging the offices of the non-permanent members of the Security Council to assist the effort to persuade them to vote for a resolution to support war in Iraq.
Her lawyers had indicated that they would raise the issue of the legality of the war and the Attorney-General’s advice as part of her defence. Suddenly, it was announced that the charges that had been brought against her would be dropped, just before her case was due to come to court.
This decision received considerable media coverage and it was widely thought that the charges were dropped because the Government did not want the question of the legality of war and the Attorney-General’s advice to be raised in court. The Today programme asked me to comment on the dropping of the charges.
I accepted, and took the opportunity to reveal on the programme that we were also spying on Kofi Annan’s office. Following my interview, all hell broke loose.
The No 10 machine went into overdrive to attack, undermine and smear me. The Prime Minister said my action was deeply irresponsible and the briefings said I would be expelled from the Privy Council, charged under the Official Secrets Act and have the Labour whip withdrawn. I received a threatening letter from Sir Andrew Turnbull repeating these threats and warning me to take no part in further interviews. Members of the public sent me copies of scurrilous responses they had received from their local Labour MPs when they had complained to them about the UK spying on Kofi Annan.
Much of the press took the No10 line, as they so often do, but my office was inundated with letters and e-mails of support. And wherever I went on bus, Tube or in the street, people would greet me very warmly, express support and ask me not to be crushed by the pressure.
I was surprised by all of this. There is no doubt that my allegation was true. Transcripts of Kofi’s conversations as well as draft papers were circulated by British intelligence. I knew the transcripts of phone conversations were closely monitored because a senior intelligence official once came to see me and asked if we could speak alone. He pointed out that after I talked to Kofi from Kigali I had referred to something I could know only because I had read previous transcripts of calls to the secretary general. He was not hostile in any way, just asking me to be careful. This meant, of course, that my calls, like all the others, had been carefully monitored and analysed.
This had been going on since we came into government and probably before. It may well have been a hangover from the Cold War. It had seemed odd, but basically harmless during the time that we were working closely and very supportively with Kofi Annan; but given that we were now manipulating at the UN and acting to undermine his work, I decided that the fact that we were spying on his office should be brought to public attention.
It is completely ludicrous to suggest, now the Cold War is over, that anyone or any legitimate British interest is put at risk by my revealing that the UK spies on Kofi Annan’s office. Nothing at all came of the threats about the Privy Council or Official Secrets Act, as I knew they would not. None the less, I was threatened through the media with withdrawal of the Labour whip, and the chief whip, Hilary Armstrong, the MP for Durham North West, asked to see me.
I made clear that I was not willing to come to see her if she planned to have press outside the door and to accompany the meeting with another smear campaign. We therefore agreed to meet when the dust had settled a little, in her office in the Cabinet Office in Whitehall.
She said I was free to disagree with Tony over the Iraq war but, under the standing orders of the Parliamentary Labour Party, no personal attacks were allowed. I said I was not engaging in personal attacks, but it was clear that the Prime Minister had used deceit to get us to war. She said this was not true, and I said I thought the evidence overwhelmingly clear.
I pointed out that I had already made my views clear in my evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee which was published, and had put these views on the record in the House of Commons. I made it clear that I was unwilling to resile from these views whatever her threat. After some discussion we agreed she would send me a letter acknowledging that I would not resile from my stated views but had said I had no need to constantly repeat them now the issues I had raised were so firmly in the public domain. She said she wanted to share her letter with the parliamentary committee. I said that was fine but if the letter said that I could not say what I knew to be true, I would reject it. We then negotiated an agreed text. But in the usual New Labour way the press was briefed that I had been rebuked, although the letter said no such thing.