Britain spied on U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the buildup to the Iraq war, a former Cabinet minister said Thursday, triggering yet another postwar crisis for Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Blair refused to confirm or deny the accusation and branded his former international development secretary, Clare Short, "deeply irresponsible" for commenting on sensitive security issues.
For Blair, the allegation is another potentially damaging aftershock of the Iraq invasion, following controversies over Britain's prewar intelligence dossiers, the death of a weapons scientist, the coalition's failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the collapse of a court case on alleged U.S.-British bugging of the United Nations.
But in a poised performance at his monthly news conference, the prime minister insisted British spies always acted within international law.
The United Nations said any spying on Annan's office would be illegal.
"Such activities would undermine the integrity and confidential nature of diplomatic exchanges. Those who speak to the secretary-general are entitled to assume that their exchanges are confidential," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said.
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell had no comment on the case. "I have nothing to say with respect to the activities in the United Kingdom. We never talk about intelligence matters of that nature."
The opposition was quick to criticize Blair's government.
"I'm afraid the situation now seems to be a complete mess. It's about time the prime minister got a grip on it and sorted it out," said Michael Howard, leader of the Conservative Party.
Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said Blair "must come clean" and "reassure the British people that his government was not involved in spying on Kofi Annan."
Short, who has repeatedly embarrassed Blair since she quit the Cabinet in May over the war, said she read transcripts of Annan's conversations while she was a member of the government.
"The U.K. in this time was also getting, spying on Kofi Annan's office and getting reports from him about what was going on," she said in an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. radio.
"These things are done. And in the case of Kofi's office, it's been done for some time," added Short, who has accused Blair of being "reckless" and misleading the country, and has repeatedly called on him to resign.
Asked explicitly whether British spies had been instructed to carry out operations within the United Nations on people such as Annan, she said: "Yes, absolutely."
She made no comment on the method of spying on Annan.
Blair refused to comment directly on the allegation, and stressed his silence was not an indication it was true.