Trustworthy Freedom Fighter
Joined: 06 Apr 2009
|Posted: Thu Mar 07, 2013 10:03 am Post subject: The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War - Katherine Gun
|Katharine Gun: Ten years on what happened to the woman who revealed dirty tricks on the UN Iraq war vote?
Ten years ago, a young Mandarin specialist at GCHQ, the government's surveillance centre in Cheltenham, did something extraordinary. Katharine Gun, a shy and studious 28-year-old who spent her days listening in to obscure Chinese intercepts, decided to tell the world about a secret plan by the US government to spy on the United Nations.
She had received an email in her inbox asking her and her colleagues to help in a vast intelligence "surge" designed to secure a UN resolution to send troops into Iraq. She was horrified and leaked the email to the Observer. As a result of the story the paper published 10 years ago this weekend, she was arrested, lost her job and faced trial under the Official Secrets Act.
The memo from Frank Koza, chief of staff at the "regional targets" section of the National Security Agency, GCHQ's sister organisation in the US, remains shocking in its implications for British sovereignty. Koza was in effect issuing a direct order to the employees of a UK security agency to gather "the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favourable to US goals or to head off surprises". This included a particular focus on the "swing nations" on the security council, Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria and Guinea, "as well as extra focus on Pakistan UN matters".
The story went around the world and the leak electrified the international debate during the weeks of diplomatic deadlock. Most directly, it bolstered opposition to the US position from Chilean and Mexican diplomats weary of American "dirty tricks". The same countries demanded immediate answers from the British government about its involvement in the spying. With the operation blown, the chances of George W Bush and Tony Blair getting the consensus for a direct UN mandate for war were now near zero.
For the Observer too, it was a story full of risks. The paper had taken the controversial decision to back intervention in Iraq. Yet here was a story that had the capacity to derail the war altogether. It remains entirely to the credit of Roger Alton, at the time the paper's editor, that he stuck with the story, despite its potential implications.
Gun had hoped the leak would * the conscience of the British public, large sections of which were already taking to the streets in opposition to the war. Surely, she thought, when people realised that the UK was being asked to collaborate in an operation to find out personal information that could be used to blackmail UN delegates, they would be outraged and the UK government would halt its slide into war. She failed.
A decade on, sitting in a cafe in Cheltenham, not far from GCHQ, I asked her if she still stood by what she had done. "Still no regrets," she said. "But the more I think about what happened, the more angry and frustrated I get about the fact that nobody acted on intelligence. The more we find out that in fact the million-person march was a real cause of worry for Downing Street and for Blair personally, it makes you think we were so close and yet so far."
Now there is the possibility that Gun's singular life will be made into a movie.
"I never aligned myself specifically with the anti-war movement. But I talk to people and there does seem to be a sense of failure that, despite all the campaigning and all the marching and all the protesting and everything they did, it made not a ha'porth of difference. And that's quite a depressing place to find yourself in when you feel so strongly and passionately about something."
As for her own story, she recognises that 10 years on it scarcely registers with the public. I sensed a slight flash of anger as she said: "It's not even a footnote in the history of Iraq." But she said she would still be prepared to give evidence to the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. "There seems to be this blasé attitude – the spying goes on, everyone does it and so it's nothing to get all hot under the collar about. But this specific instance is the ugly truth of what goes on."
Although the story made headlines around the world at the time of the leak and later at the time of her trial, which collapsed after the prosecution withdrew its evidence, it remains largely missing from the official narratives of the build-up to the Iraq war.
Jack Straw, then the foreign secretary, has not been challenged on whether he authorised the operation to go ahead, although it is almost certain that he did.
Gun said that the UK government still had some explaining to do: "I think there need to be more questions asked about whether they responded to that request, why they felt it was within their scope of work to respond to that sort of request, and what is the manner of the relationship between UK politics and US politics.
It was almost as if that request was asking for someone within their own nation to do this work; it wasn't asking another completely independent state for co-operation."
The risks Gun took in revealing the UN email's existence were huge. By printing off the memo, putting it in her handbag and taking it home, she was already committing a serious breach of the Official Secrets Act.
In leaking it to the Observer, she was also doing something unprecedented in the history of espionage. Not only was the cable the most sensitive ever to be disclosed on either side of the Atlantic, it was also unique in its timing. Most whistleblowers leak after the event to expose perceived wrongdoing. Gun disclosed details of the spying operation as it was happening to stop something she viewed as terrible happening in the future.
As the title of the film script suggests, she was "The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War". Daniel Ellsberg, the celebrated American whistleblower who leaked the Pentagon Papers about the build-up to the war in Vietnam, described it as "the most important and courageous leak I have ever seen".He added: "No one else – including myself – has ever done what Katharine Gun did: tell secret truths at personal risk, before an imminent war, in time, possibly, to avert it."
As it was, a second UN resolution directly to authorise war against Iraq never materialised and air strikes began on 19 March 2003. Katharine Gun did not stop the war, but was it all entirely in vain? It is probably still too early to tell.
Joined: 25 Jul 2005
Location: St. Pauls, Bristol, England
|Posted: Thu Mar 05, 2020 9:49 am Post subject:
Britain’s secret state and the need for whistle-blowing
By Katharine Gun• 5 March 2020
Then British prime minister Tony Blair shakes hands with then US president George W. Bush after addressing the media in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, D.C. on 17 May 2007. (Photo: EPA/MATTHEW CAVANAUGH) Less
In November 2003, I was charged with a breach of the Official Secrets Act in the UK. My ‘crime’ had been to reveal an email from the US National Security Agency (NSA) to Britain's intelligence agency, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) where I was working at the time.
The email, which arrived on 31 January 2003, specified a US operation to target the home and office communications of six foreign diplomats on the UN Security Council. The purpose was to use the information gathered to strong-arm those states into voting for a resolution supporting an invasion of Iraq.
I leaked this email via a contact, which then made its way to The Observer newspaper.
I believe that this operation, using intelligence for the specific purpose of garnering votes to authorise a highly contested and deeply unpopular war against Iraq, was not only illegal but also immoral.
Eight months later, I was charged and faced the prospect of a two-year custodial sentence. I pleaded not guilty and my defence team requested all the legal advice from the then Attorney General Lord Goldsmith to then Prime Minister Tony Blair. Within a day of the defence team submitting this request, the charges against me were dropped.
In court, the prosecution stated that “there is no longer sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction”, adding that “it would not be appropriate to go into the reasons for this decision”.
Sixteen years later, the then prosecutor, Sir Ken McDonald, claimed that it was for “national security” reasons that the case against me was dropped.
Actor Keira Knightley (L) poses with GCHQ whistleblower Katharine Gun who she portrays in Official Secrets during the BFI London Film Festival in London, 10 October 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE/NEIL HALL)
Who defines national security?
In its own small way, my case illustrates the conflict and tensions around the issue of “national security”. I would argue that the Iraq war was not only against our national security but has been catastrophic for global security as a whole.
In fact, Lord Goldsmiths’ own legal advice at the time (prior to him changing it) was that an invasion would be illegal. The surveillance operation revealed by the NSA email was illegal under the Geneva Convention. It was in pursuit of an illegal war which has damaged our national security. Information about this issue is classified, however, and the reason for this is to do with “national security”.
National security is often the term used by government or intelligence officials to justify what they do, but who defines what it is? What is the scope of it and what are the checks and balances?
It is accepted without question as a legitimate concept, but the collective consequences of the previous two decades of invasions, bombings, rendition and torture, drone attacks, kill lists, massive surveillance, human rights violations, bulk data collection/storage/analysis and exploitation… paints a very dark picture. Do these policies provide “national security”? Are they in the “national interest”?
Looking back over the last two decades, my father’s lament that we are in the “Age of Insanity” rings remarkably true. Many of the numerous, multi-faceted, horrendous consequences of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were predicted by peace activists, international relations experts, academics and journalists. One was also raised by our intelligence services, which was the increased risk of terrorism within the UK as a result.
The argument that we invaded those countries essentially for reasons of national security rings hollow, when looked at with 20/20 vision. As does the same argument over the catastrophic bombing of Libya in 2011, which caused the collapse of another relatively stable and functioning country, the support of anti-Syrian government terrorists since 2013, and the unwavering support for Saudi Arabia against Yemen.
The current bellicose focus on Iran in an already chaotic and conflict-torn region tests the limits of sanity.
Iraqi security and civilians gather at the site of a suicide car bombing in the eastern Baghdad district of al-Shaab on Saturday, 21 January 2006. The blast at a popular market left three people dead and injured five. (Photo: EPA/MOHAMMED JALIL)
On the back of all this chaos and violence, two decades of enhanced anti-terror legislation and intrusive and illiberal surveillance and investigative powers legislation have been crafted and passed. There is also a growing public and private network of intelligence agencies working behind the scenes, all of whom must sign the Official Secrets Act or are understood to be bound by it.
Being in receipt of secret information can convey a sense of power and uniqueness on a person or group of people. When someone is legally bound by an oath of silence to keep secrets, the violation of which leads to imprisonment, the sense of uniqueness and power is edged with fear.
Britain’s Official Secrets Act 1911 was rushed through parliament in July 1911 in a hysterical pre-war environment without so much as a cough of protest. It was drafted without including a specific public interest defence, ie the ability for those accused to argue that the public interest in disclosing the information would outweigh the reasons for not disclosing it.
The wording left only a tiny opening for such a defence, by referring to information gathered as “communicated for a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State unless the contrary is proved”.
But this was shut down in a reform of the secrecy act in 1989. Front bench opposition Labour MPs at the time, including Tony Blair, challenged this, arguing for the inclusion of a public interest defence. Disappointingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, those same politicians did nothing to redress the balance while in government.
In her book Secrecy and Power in the British State, Ann Rogers writes that “national security policy is in the hands of those who have infinite belief in their loyalty and endless suspicion about everyone else; there is a clear us/them binary, with the loyalty of those ‘inside’ the policy making apparatus as virtually beyond question”.
She explains that this policy making centre may also include “interest groups or newspaper editors” but that the decision making process is a closed one due to there being no structural way for people outside this “centre” to have any influence. A clear example of this is the millions who marched against the Iraq war. “Governments only need utter the words ‘national security’ and the door to democratic participation is firmly shut,” Rogers argues.
A sign in the village of Ashton Clinton, Buckinghamshire, UK. (Photo: Flickr)
Holding government to account
This remarkable situation in the 21st Century leaves us with a persistent, pressing problem. Who do we turn to, what do we do, if we believe that members of the government or intelligence services or the government itself are acting illegally, are corrupt or are behaving in a way contrary to genuine national security?
Without a defence, any public interest-related revelations by intelligence and security personnel are considered criminal breaches.
Parliamentary groups like the Intelligence Select Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and inquiries such as the 2016 Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war reveal only so much, months and years after the events took place. In some cases they are not given access to important information that would enable them to better complete their inquiry, or ministers refuse to answer questions or even to attend.
Over the last two decades, no official or government minister has been held to account for illegal invasions, illegal surveillance, illegal rendition and torture, illegal drone strikes.
It is obvious that for a country to thrive democratically, its public and parliamentarians need to be well-informed and have transparent access to information. In countries where information is heavily classified and restricted, such as the UK, the onus is on investigative journalists, dogged reporters and their sources. But when journalism and whistle-blowers are also under attack, one is forced to ask, what does the government wish to hide?
Until and unless there is a dramatic improvement in the accountability and transparency of the actions of the UK intelligence services and other government bodies, the need for public interest whistle-blowing will only increase. And in a genuine democracy, whistle-blowing, which can be argued to be in the public or national interest, should be properly and legally protected. DM
Katharine Gun is a former linguist and analyst at Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency and an Iraq war whistle-blower. Her act of whistle-blowing is portrayed in the recent film Official Secrets
"The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic poison which alienates the possessor from the community" Carl Jung