Lifting the lid on US ‘dirty tricks’ at the UN: interview with Katharine Gun
by Ian Sinclair
On 31 January 2003, Katharine Gun, a 28-year old Mandarin linguist at Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, arrived at work to find she had been copied in to an email from Frank Koza at the American National Security Agency.
With the US and UK facing stiff opposition at the United Nations to its aggressive stance on Iraq, the email explained how the American and British intelligence agencies were mounting a ‘dirty tricks‘ operation at the Security Council in an attempt to gain support for an invasion.
Horrified by the criminal content of the email, Gun passed it, via a friend, first to journalist Yvonne Ridley and then to the Observer‘s Martin Bright, who published it in the paper on 2 March 2003.
As she sits sipping tea in a coffee shop in Cheltenham, Gun – now 34-years old and holding her five-month old daughter in her lap – tells me she was “a nervous wreck“ in the few days between the leak being published and admitting to GCHQ she was the whistleblower. Under intense pressure, Gun was sacked from her job, briefly held in police custody, had her house searched and was charged under the Official Secrets Act. “I was on bail for eight months and that was really difficult because I didn‘t know what was going to happen, so there were times when I was really low“, she remembers.
She thinks around 100 other people saw Koza‘s email, which begs the question: why did Gun act and no one else? Her past life – growing up in Taiwan and moving to England for her ‘A‘ levels – give few clues. Asked about her politics, Gun says she voted Labour in the 1997 General Election: “Cool Britannia – finally we were getting rid of the Conservatives. I was all excited like everyone else“. Then, like so many other people, she quickly became disillusioned by New Labour. “I realised this whole business about an ‘ethical foreign policy‘was just a catchphrase. Then 9/11 happened and all the rhetoric started to increase towards military interventions.“
Gun was facing the very real possibility of a prison sentence, but on the day that her trial was scheduled to begin the Government mysteriously dropped the charges. Many believe this was due to the defence basing their case on the question of the war‘s legality. Gun agrees, and also suggests there was a good chance a jury might acquit her, which she believes would have “possibly required the Government to reform the Official Secrets Act, adding a public interest clause in to it.“
The political fallout from Gun‘s leak was extensive, ramping up the pressure on the Government to release the Attorney General‘s full legal advice and triggering further UN spying allegations from then Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short. Most importantly, Gun, hopes her leak contributed to the collapse of the all important second UN resolution, which would have given the invasion considerably more legitimacy.
Former US military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, now a close personal friend of Gun’s, believes that Gun’s revelations were “more timely and potentially more important than the Pentagon Papers”, which he leaked to the US press in 1971. “It was the first leak that was pre-emptive. Most leaks are after the event“, Gun explains about the timing of her actions.
Like other prominent figures who opposed the Government during this period such as George Galloway, David Kelly and Craig Murray, Gun paid a heavy price for her moral stand. “I lost my job, I lost a good career, I lost a circle of friends and stability“, she says, revealing that friends from GCHQ are now scared of speaking to her on the phone, fearing the intelligence services are listening in. At the same time, she believes she “gained a lot of other good friends“ and “met some amazing people“. Considered and composed, she adds, “I suppose I have peace of mind. I don‘t feel guilty.“
Six years after the world-influencing events of 2003, Gun rolls her eyes when I mention Tony Blair‘s current position as Middle East Peace Envoy. “I‘ve become very very disillusioned and cynical about politicians in general“, she notes. “I don‘t think there is anyone who could legitimately be called a statesman these days. There is no one I would say I trust. I see behind the spin now and all the doublespeak that goes on.“
How does she feel about GCHQ after all that happened to her? What advice would she give to a friend who wanted to apply to work there? Gun has clearly thought long and hard about this question, and her answer is thoughtful and measured. “You become a linguist because you are interested in other cultures and you have spent time in other countries and you don‘t tend to think in terms of black and white“, she says. In contrast she points out that at GCHQ “the whole atmosphere is ‘us’ versus ‘them‘. The mentality is not the inter-cultural everyone getting on with each other, it‘s all about targeting other people. It‘s not easy if you have spent your formative years falling in love with a culture and then you have to turn round and say ‘well sorry I think all of you lot are dodgy‘.“
Although a book about her case has recently been published in the US, Gun is more than happy to be out of the spotlight. “I don‘t want this weird double life. I know people like David Shayler have gone off the wall a bit. They sort of become defined by what they did“, she says. “I just want a normal family life.“
While Gun certainly deserves the quiet life she seeks, hopefully her extraordinary, very human story will inspire others to take similar, courageous action in the future.
The Spy Who Tried to Stop War. Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell is published by PoliPointPress.