News & Politics

An Unholy Alliance of Spooks

A scandal brewing over spying at the UN last year reveals how the U.S. government uses its 'special relationship' with Britain to violate both international and domestic laws.
Nearly a year ago, a leaked memo blew the lid off attempts by the British top-secret intelligence service to spy on members of the UN Security Council on behalf of the U.S. National Security Agency. The scandal over this flagrant violation of international law received little media attention at the time. All eyes were peeled instead on Colin Powell's now infamous presentation detailing Iraq's weapons programs in front of the Security Council -- the very presentation that this piece of espionage was intended to aid.

As with the various sleazy tactics employed in their campaign for war, this dirty trick has come back to haunt the Bush-Blair alliance. But more importantly, it reveals a dark underside to the ongoing cooperation between British and American spy agencies -- an alliance that could subvert the constitutional protections of citizens.

The UN story was back in the headlines -- at least in Britain -- thanks to fresh evidence offered by senior diplomats from Mexico and Chile. Aguilar Zinser, the Mexican ambassador to the UN at the time, told the Observer that the intelligence gathered by the GCHQ helped U.S. officials scuttle secret negotiations for a compromise resolution that would have given weapons inspectors more time. Zinser said, "When they found out, they said, 'You should know that we don't like the idea and we don't like you to promote it.'" He claimed that the only way the U.S. could have learned about the secret meetings is by spying on closed door diplomatic meetings.

Zinser's allegations have been echoed by Chile's former ambassador to the UN, Juan Valdes, who said that he found clear evidence of bugging at his mission in New York during the same time.

So it is no surprise that the Blair government decided on Friday to drop charges against Katherine Gun, the 28-year-old translator who leaked the damning memo. Dated Jan. 31, 2003, the memo was written by Frank Koza at the National Security Agency and explicitly asked for help in gathering British help in gathering "the whole gamut of information that could give U.S. policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to U.S. goals or to head off surprises." These "goals," of course, were mainly to head off any resistance to a second UN resolution authorizing a war on Iraq.

Spying on UN diplomats, of course, violates the headquarters agreement under which the UN is based in New York, not to mention several conventions on diplomatic immunities. It is even more embarrassing to be caught spying on your own allies, the nations whose Security Council votes Britain and the U.S. were supposed to be wooing last March. These included the diplomatic buildings and homes of Angola, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea and Pakistan.

But in some ways this crime is almost a peccadillo in comparison to its larger implications about just what is entailed in the so-called "special relationship" between the United States and Britain. It allows U.S. intelligence agencies to do an end run around laws barring them from domestic spying. Thanks to the GCHQ, they can just get the British to do it for them.

Such cooperation between intelligence agencies is a firmly established cornerstone of an otherwise tenuous alliance. The GCHQ works closely with the National Security Agency in the States on a regular basis, passing along any information that may interest the latter. Britain benefits from American logistics and equipment, while Washington can violate the constitutional rights of its own citizens at will.

Since this kind of "assistance" gives London leverage in an otherwise ant-and-elephant partnership, successive British governments have always invested GCHQ with enormous significance. Although the leaked memo does not offer definitive proof, it seems highly likely that the British end of the partnership was in fact directly involved in the spying in New York, with the eager encouragement of the NSA. It also explains the Blair government's decision to drop the charges against Gun. Although the government had claimed that Gun cannot describe her work at GCHQ as part of her defense for security reasons, that line of reasoning is unlikely to go down well with any jury, or even a judge.

Gun has justified her whistleblowing on the grounds that the documents she leaked exposed "serious illegality and wrongdoing on the part of the U.S. government, which attempted to subvert our own security services." Moreover, her expected line of defense was also to claim that the UK government was engaged in illegal acts in pursuit of an illegal war. Her attorneys had requested public disclosure of the advice offered by Attorney General Lord Goldsmith to the Blair government on the legality of the Iraq war. While Blair has refused to make this information public, a trial would have raised yet another threat to his already precarious position. Many legal experts are confident that, if revealed, the evidence would show that Tony Blair took Britain to war despite being warned that it was illegal.

But dropping the charges may not make this scandal go away, at least for 10 Downing Street. Gun has already drawn the support of public figures like Sean Penn, Jesse Jackson and Daniel Ellsberg, who have signed a public letter of support on her behalf. With the political pressure over the missing WMDs showing no signs of receding, 2004 is shaping up to be a bad year for Tony Blair. He can thank his special relationship with George Bush for that.
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