The dramatic but little-told story of a British intelligence whistleblower who tried to raise the alarm over a questionable spying campaign to bolster the cause for the Iraq War is about to get some long overdue attention. “Official Secrets,” a film with Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes due to be released Aug. 23, tells the true story of Katharine Gun, a linguist at Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s counterpart to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), and what happened when she exposed an operation to gather intelligence that could be used to coerce U.N. Security Council members into supporting the war.
The film premiered in Washington, D.C. this week at the National Press Club and will be shown at Tina Brown’s 51/Fest Film Festival in New York City on July 20. Both screenings feature discussions with the real Katharine Gun, South African director Gavin Hood (of 2015’s “Eye in the Sky” fame), and the British journalist who helped break the story, The Guardian’s Martin Bright (he worked at the sister paper The Observer at the time).
Never heard of Gun? Neither have many others, especially Americans. The NSA memo she leaked and her arrest shortly thereafter made a brief splash during the runup to the Iraq invasion in 2003, helping fuel anti-war protests in the United Kingdom. But the news was quickly drowned out by the “shock and awe” of the war itself. Her case resurfaced only briefly later that year, when the British government finally charged her for violations of the Official Secrets Act, and then just a few months later, when prosecutors mysteriously dropped the charges.
The NSA memo, with GCHQ’s apparent acquiescence “remains shocking in its implications for British sovereignty,” Bright wrote in a retrospective on Gun’s case at the 10-year anniversary of the war in March 2013. “Koza was in effect issuing a direct order to the employees of a UK security agency.” Yet three U.K. government inquiries into the decisions that led to the Iraq War failed to probe the case.
The result was a ruined career and a trail of unanswered questions that are very much worth a journalist’s deep dive, even 16 years later, according to Gun, Bright and Hood. For example, what were the NSA and GCHQ doing in that spying-blackmail operation and just how far did it go? Who ordered or authorized it? What did President George W. Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair discuss in their Jan. 31, 2003, meeting at the White House, the same date the NSA memo was sent to the agency’s staff and to GCHQ.
“We felt like we never had our day in court,” Gun said in the July 16 discussion in Washington.
British Backing Builds for U.S.-Led Invasion
Gun was 28 in 2003 and had been working at GCHQ as a Mandarin Chinese linguist for only a couple of years, when she became alarmed at Blair’s public statements supporting an invasion of Iraq by insisting that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. The claims were similar to those coming from the Bush administration. Gun wasn’t an anti-war activist, but she knew the intelligence was not as certain as political leaders were making it out to be.
On Jan. 31, 2003, she and others in her office received an email written by a Frank Koza, chief of staff in the NSA’s “Regional Targets” unit, which, the Observer explained at the time, “spies on countries that are viewed as strategically important for United States interests.”
The memo, apparently written to senior NSA officials and asking for help from GCHQ, said the agency was “mounting a surge particularly directed at the UN Security Council (UNSC) members (minus US and GBR of course).” That meant collecting “the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals or to head off surprises,” Koza wrote.
The NSA official went on to explain that the operation was targeted at Security Council members Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria, and Guinea, with an “extra focus on Pakistan UN matters.” The countries had been holdouts on whether they would support a second Security Council resolution that the U.S. and the U.K. had pledged to pursue before going to war.
The Observer article, which reported that three former intelligence agents had confirmed that the language and content of the memo appeared authentic, explained that “Koza specifies that the information will be used for the US’s ‘QRC’ – Quick Response Capability – ‘against’ the key delegations.” The wording suggests “surveillance of both the office and home phones of UN delegation members,” the newspaper reported.
Of course, U.N. diplomats assume they are being bugged. But the Observer reported that some had recently complained about the extraordinary arm-twisting the U.S. was doing to gain their support, including threats to withhold economic and other types of assistance.
Americans `Very Purposeful’
“The memo reveals for the first time the scope and scale of US communications intercepts targeted against the New York-based missions,” wrote Bright and co-authors Ed Vulliamy and Peter Beaumont at the time. “’The Americans are being very purposeful about this,’” said “a source at a European intelligence agency” cited in the article.
When the Observer article hit newsstands on March 2, 2003, it caused a furor in Britain. GCHQ immediately launched an investigation into the leak. Gun, who says she couldn’t bear the sight of colleagues dragged in for questioning, soon confessed and was arrested and released pending charges. But with help from a prominent British barrister specializing in human rights law and future U.N. Special Rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, she pleaded not guilty and mounted a defense of necessity – that her disclosure was necessary to potentially save lives by trying to stop the U.K. from going to war on an illegitimate basis.
The question of the war’s legality turned in part on opinions issued by Lord Goldsmith, the U.K. attorney general at the time. He had doubted the legality of going to war without a second, clearer U.N. Security Council resolution of authorization, according to the 2016 report from the seven-year Chilcot inquiry into the U.K. decision to pursue the 2003 invasion. But he was under tremendous pressure from Blair and the Bush administration. After an early February visit to Washington to consult with the U.S. administration’s legal advisors, Goldsmith apparently changed his mind and wrote in a memo that he was “prepared to accept that a reasonable case can be made.”
But questions had continued to swirl about whether Hussein did indeed have weapons of mass destruction and whether the U.S. and its allies had tried hard enough to reach a diplomatic solution and avoid war. The memo that Gun had leaked contributed to the doubts, especially at the U.N. Security Council, and in the end, the U.S. and U.K. declined to pursue a second Security Council resolution.
“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,” Bright wrote in the 2013 retrospective.
On March 19, 2003, the U.S.-led military operation began.
A Defense of Necessity
It wasn’t until November that year that Gun was charged under Britain’s Official Secrets Act. In a statement at the time, she said:
“Any disclosures that may have been made were justified because they exposed serious illegality and wrongdoing on the part of the US government which attempted to subvert our own security services. Secondly, they could have helped prevent widescale death and casualties amongst ordinary Iraqi people and UK forces in the course of an illegal war.”
The rationale was developed by her legal counsel at the Liberty human rights organization. But they never had an opportunity to press that case – and potentially set a precedent for whistleblowing in intelligence work. In February 2004, as Gun appeared at the Old Bailey, the government said it would offer no evidence and essentially dropped the charges. The Guardian reported that the prosecution backed off after the defense presented it with evidence that the U.K. Foreign Office Legal Advisor had disagreed with Goldsmith’s endorsement of the war’s legality. And just a month earlier, in January 2004, the Bush administration had conceded that the key basis of the invasion, Hussein’s supposed secret stashes of weapons of mass destruction, could not be found. By that time, the U.S., the U.K., and their allies were mired in the post-invasion insurgency and casualties were mounting.
Despite the exhaustive nature of the U.K. inquiry that ended in 2016 and two others before it, no one has questioned the intelligence operation that Gun revealed. In 2013, former CIA security technician and ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden collaborated with The Guardian and other news organizations to examine and publicize his bombshell leaks that showed, among other things, the vast extent of U.S. spying on other nations’ leaders and of GCHQ cooperation with the NSA, such as tapping fiber-optic cables used for global communications.
Investigative journalists never really followed up on Gun’s case. That was in part because there were so many other shiny objects to chase once the war began, Bright said at the Washington discussion, which was a preview of the 8th annual Whistleblower Summit and Film Festival, organized to draw attention to whistleblower cases.
“We still do not know all that happened – what GCHQ did, and why things happened,” he said.
Gun told Bright in 2013, “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.”