Tag Archives: Daniel Ellsberg

Has anything changed since Katharine Gun’s momentous leak against the Iraq War?

Has anything changed since Katharine Gun’s momentous leak against the Iraq War?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 October 2019

Directed by Gavin Hood and starring Keira Knightley, new film Official Secrets tells the story of Katharine Gun’s brave actions to try to stop the illegal US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Working as a translator at the secretive intelligence organisation Government Communications Headquarters (GHCQ) in Cheltenham, on 31 January 2003 the then 28-year old Gun was copied in to an email from Frank Koza at the US National Security Agency (NSA). With the US and UK facing strong opposition at the United Nations to its aggressive stance on Iraq, Koza explained how the NSA was mounting a ‘dirty tricks‘ operation to spy on members of the UN Security Council, in an attempt to gain support for an invasion, and were looking for support from GCHQ.

Increasingly concerned about the rush to war, Gun leaked the memo to journalist Yvonne Ridley, who passed it onto the Observer‘s Martin Bright. It was published in the paper on 2 March 2003, seventeen days before the invasion. Gun was soon taken into police custody and charged under the Official Secrets Act, though the government mysteriously dropped the case the day before her trial was to start.

US whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War in 1971, proclaimed Gun’s actions the “most important and courageous leak I have ever seen.”

“It was the first leak that was pre-emptive. Most leaks are after the event“, Gun told me, when I interviewed her for the Morning Star in 2008.

Gun’s whistleblowing likely strengthened the case against the US and UK at the UN – the Security Council did not authorise the invasion. The collapse of her trial also triggered then International Development Secretary Clare Short to publicly note British security services spied on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s office in the run up to the Iraq war.

Aswell as telling Gun’s story, the film focuses on how the Observer dealt with receiving the leaked memo – a fascinating story also told by investigative journalist Nick Davies in his 2008 book Flat Earth News. With the newspaper taking a pro-war stance under Editor Roger Alton and Political Editor Kamal Ahmed, Davies shows there was a crucial delay in reporting on the memo.

One reason for this was “the ‘circle of resistance’ to anti-war stories”, he writes. Ahmed, who was very close to Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell and was “an open advocate” for the government’s position on Iraq, was “running round the office going ‘Hitler diaries, Hitler diaries’”, according to one source.

“If we had gone with it two or three weeks earlier, it might have made a difference”, one frustrated Observer journalist told Davies. “There was an ideological resistance to it. It could have stopped the war.”

There are interesting similarities between these tumultuous events and the activities of the intelligence services and the media in the successive 16 years.

The US and UK, it seems, continue to spy on the United Nations and other international organisations. Reporting on documents leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, in December 2013 the New York Times revealed “more than 1,000 targets of American and British surveillance in recent years”, including “multiple United Nations Missions in Geneva” such as UNICEF and the United National Disarmament Research. In his must-read 2014 book about Snowden’s leaks, No Place To Hide, Glenn Greenwald highlights how a document from 2010 shows the US spied on eight members of the Security Council regarding resolutions on Iran. “The espionage gave the US goverment valuable information about those countries’ voting intentions, giving Washington an edge when talking to other members of the Security Council”, Greenwald notes.

Regarding the UK, “in the mainstream, the official view is that the British government provide enduring support to the UN”, historian Mark Curtis notes in his 2004 book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses. “The opposite is true: it is clear from the historical record that the UN has traditionally been seen as a major threat.”

Curtis continues: “For the past 50 years, the essence of British strategy has been to ensure the UN’s failure to prevent or condemn Britain’s, or its allies’, acts of aggression.”

Secret documents published by Wikileaks in 2015 show “Britain conducted secret vote-trading deals with Saudi Arabia to ensure both states were elected to the UN human rights council (UNHRC)”, according to the Guardian. The Independent in 2017 and the Guardian in 2016 also reported the UK had blocked a UN inquiry into Saudi war crimes in Yemen. In March of this year the Guardian reported the UK was set to “oppose motions criticising rights abuses [by Israel] in the West Bank and Gaza that are brought to the UN’s human rights council”.

And, like in 2003, the liberal media continue to be hugely comprised when it comes to reporting on the actions of the US and UK intelligence services.

As one of the main outlets for Snowden’s leaks, the Guardian – seen as the most anti-establishment national newspaper by many – came under intense pressure from the UK government, Matt Kennard and Curtis set out in their recent Daily Maverick long read.

This coercion has effectively neutralised the paper’s adversarial reporting of the ‘security state’, they argue. Their reporting is based on minutes from the Ministry of Defence-run Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee, AKA the D-Notice Committee, which defines its purpose as preventing “inadvertent public disclosure of information that would compromise UK military and intelligence operations”.

In July 2013, six weeks after the first Snowden leaks were published, GCHQ officials visited the Guardian’s offices in King’s Cross, London to oversee the destruction of laptops containing the Snowden documents. Though the action was completely symbolic (the documents were also stored outside of the UK, presumably in the Guardian’s US office) something changed.

“The Guardian had begun to seek and accept D-Notice advice not to publish certain highly sensitive details and since then the dialogue [with the committee] had been reasonable and improving”, the D-Notice Committee minutes for November 2013 noted. Incredibly the Guardian journalist who had helped to destroy the laptops – Deputy Editor Paul Johnson – took a seat on the D-Notice Committee itself, attending from 2014 to 2018.

Exclusive Guardian interviews with the heads of MI6 and MI5 followed, with veteran, often critical ‘national security’ journalists – David Leigh, Richard Norton-Taylor, Ewen MacAskill and Ian Cobain – replaced by less-experienced and knowledgeable reporters under current editor Katherine Viner. “It seems they’ve got rid of everyone who seemed to cover the security services and military in an adversarial way”, a Guardian journalist told Kennard and Curtis.

And Kamal Ahmad, whose ‘journalism’ in 2002-3 Davies argues “meant Observer readers were slowly soaked in disinformation” about Iraq? Following a stint as the BBC’s Economic Editor, he is now Editorial Director at the corporation, where he is “responsible for shaping the BBC’s future editorial strategy, focusing on storytelling and explanatory journalism”.

One important lesson to come out of Gun’s extraordinary story is the importance of inspiration. Gun, for example, has explained that in the period before she leaked the NSA memo she read two books – War Plan Iraq by Peace News Editor Milan Rai and Target Iraq by Norman Solomon and Reese Erlich – which convinced her there was no case for war. And Snowden himself has said he was inspired to leak the NSA documents after watching The Most Dangerous Man in America, the 2009 documentary about Ellsberg.

So maybe, just maybe, the next important whistleblower will be sitting next to you in the cinema when you go and see Official Secrets.

Official Secrets is in cinemas from 18 October 2019.

Don’t despair! Even protests that feel like a failure often have unexpected impacts

Don’t despair! Even protests that feel like a failure often have unexpected impacts
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
18 December 2018

A common response to those protesting is to dismiss it is a waste of time – “the government doesn’t listen”, “things never change” opine the naysayers. Frustratingly, this argument is sometimes even made by those doing the protesting themselves. On the 10th anniversary of the huge 15 February 2003 anti-Iraq War march author Tariq Ali – who spoke at the rally in Hyde Park that day – said “It was a huge show of anger but that’s about it. It left no lasting legacy”.

Leftists and activists working for progressive social change would be wise to steer clear of this kind of negativity, and instead remember that actions and protests often have unexpected, positive effects on other people and the wider world.

This rule very much applies to protests that seem like a failure at the time.

For example, in the early 1960s, Lisa Peattie, a young American widow, took two of her children to a vigil in front of the White House to protest nuclear testing.

“The vigil was small, a hundred women at most”, Paul Loeb, a friend of Peattie’s, writes in his bestselling 1999 book The Soul Of A Citizen: Living with Conviction in Challenging Times. “Rain poured down. Lisa’s children were restless. Frustrated and soaked, the women joked about how President Kennedy was no doubt sitting inside drinking hot chocolate, warm, comfortable, and not even looking at their signs.”

A few years later, Peattie attended another march in Washington D.C. about nuclear testing, this one significantly larger. One of the speakers that day was the famous paediatrician Benjamin Spock. “Spock described how he’d come to take a stand on the nuclear issue”, Loeb notes. “Because of his stature, his decision was immensely consequential, and would pave the way for his equally important opposition to the Vietnam War.” And here is the kicker: “Spock mentioned being in D.C. a few years earlier, and seeing a small group of women marching with their kids in the pouring rain.”

“I thought that if those women were out there,” Spock said, “their cause must be really important.”

According to the author Tom Wells, “few activists” in the anti-war movement Spock went on to play such an important part in “fully appreciated the considerable political power they possessed.” Despite this ignorance the movement “played a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war”, Wells concludes in his 1994 book The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam. This analysis was confirmed by Admiral Moorer, chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Nixon Administration, who told Wells, “The reaction of the noisy radical groups was considered all the time. And it served to inhibit and restrain the decision makers.”

The Vietnam War provides another case of the unexpected impact of activism. In the 1960s Daniel Ellsberg worked as a military analyst for the RAND Corporation where he helped to compile a top-secret study of the history of the war that had been commissioned by US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. “He was very hawkish”, Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett said about Ellsberg, having met him in Vietnam in 1966 when he was leading a patrol to locate an enemy sniper.

Growing increasingly disillusioned by the war, around 1969 Ellsberg began going along to anti-war movement events and protests, encouraged by his then girlfriend, and now wife. While attending a War Resister’s League conference and listening to draft resister Randy Kehler talk about his fellow activists going to prison, Ellsberg experienced a kind of epiphany. “It was as if an axe had split my head”, Ellsberg recounts in the 2009 documentary about his life, The Most Dangerous Man in America. “But what had really happened is that my life had split into two. It was my life after those words that I have lived ever since.” This life famously included deciding to leak, in 1971, the top secret history – now known as The Pentagon Papers – which exposed the lies the US government had been telling the American people for decades. “If I hadn’t met Randy Kehler it wouldn’t have occurred to me to copy those papers”, Ellsberg later said.

With the release of the Pentagon Papers failing to rouse the American public to rise up and stop the destruction of Vietnam, the documentary describes how Ellsberg felt he had failed. But while his actions may have failed to stop the war – an impossible feat for one individual, of course – he had a huge influence on another whistleblower more than four decades later: US intelligence analyst Edward Snowden.

“While I was weighing up whether to come forward or not – and this was an agonising process because it was certainly life-changing – I watched that documentary [The Most Dangerous Man in America]”, Snowden, who leaked National Security Agency documents in 2013, told the Guardian in January. “Dan’s example, hearing the arguments from someone who has lived through this, it helps prepare someone to make that jump themselves.”

This process of apparent defeat turning out to be the start of something hugely influential and powerful can be seen in UK protest too.

In the early 1990s a group of concerned young people set up camp at Twyford Down in 1992 to try to stop the building of the M3 motorway extension through beautiful chalk downland. This construction was part of “the biggest road-building programme since the Romans”, the Tory government had boasted in 1989. After living in tents in terrible conditions for several months, in December 1992 the protesters were violently evicted in what became known as Yellow Wednesday. Defeated and physically exhausted the group left the camp, and while there were many other protests, the road went ahead.

However, though the road was built, the Twyford Down protests lit the fuse for a growing movement against road building across the UK, with camps and nonviolent direct action sprouting up against the M11 Link Road in east London, at Solsbury Hill, Jesmond Dene in Newcastle, the Newbury Bypass and many other places, causing the government and road builders huge problems. With the Tories on their last legs and public opinion shifting, the road building programme was effectively scrapped. The 600 proposed new road schemes dropped to 150 by 1997, with Labour putting the whole programme on hold after that year’s general election. The activists at Twyford Down and the other anti-roads protests had lost nearly every individual battle, but in the end they won the war. Moreover, the anti-roads activists influenced the next ‘war’ by inspiring the founders of Plane Stupid direct action group, who played a key role in the halting of Heathrow expansion in the 2000s.

In a perfect world, every protest would produce clear, direct and quick results. In (messy) reality the exact impact of a protest or movement is often difficult to discern, with its full effects sometimes not felt for years, decades even. The 2003 anti-Iraq war march and movement that Tariq Ali disparages has had a whole host of long-term influences, from helping to shift public opinion against UK military interventions and shortening Tony Blair’s political career, to being a key factor in the historic 2013 parliamentary vote that stopped British military action in Syria. In 2016 Alistair Campbell, Blair’s spin doctor, argued “We cannot overlook the fact that widespread opposition to the [Iraq] war… played a big part in [Labour leader Jeremy] Corbyn’s rise.”

Indeed, as Snowden shows above, it’s possible the people who will be inspired by a protest are not even born when it takes place.

More broadly, it’s always good to keep a positive attitude about the possibility of making a difference. As Bertolt Brecht is said to have argued, “Those who struggle may fail. But those who do not struggle have already failed”.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral history of the 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

The Washington Post: Watchdog or stenographer to power?

The Washington Post: Watchdog or stenographer to power?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 March 2018

STEVEN SPIELBERG’S new film about the Washington Post’s decision in 1971 to publish the Pentagon Papers — a secret history of the Vietnam War that proved successive US presidents had lied to the US public — has received huge amounts of critical acclaim.

The Post “is a pointed celebration of liberal decency” and “a stirring example of principle,” wrote Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian’s film critic, in his four star review.

Jonathan Freedland, the Guardian’s senior liberal hawk, made a case last month for the film to be awarded best picture at the Oscars, arguing it’s a newspaper story “full of … integrity.”

The Post is, undoubtedly, an impressive film that tells a riveting and important story.

Under intense pressure from the Richard Nixon administration, the paper’s publisher Katharine Graham (played by Meryl Streep) and executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) choose to disregard the government’s warning about endangering “national security” and publish the leaked documents.

As one of the newspaper’s employees tells the newsroom, relaying the Supreme Court’s decision that supported publication, in one particularly Spielbergian scene, “The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfil its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

Frustratingly, a number of inconvenient facts have been largely forgotten in this self-serving celebration of the US press as crusading, obstinate and deeply critical of government.

As the film highlights, Washington Post assistant managing editor for national news Ben Bagdikian played a key role in getting hold of the Pentagon Papers and their eventual publication.

However, what I haven’t seen mentioned in any reviews or wider coverage is that Bagdikian went on to write one of the most important critiques of the mainstream media in the US.

First published in 1983, The Media Monopoly explained how the increasingly concentrated corporate ownership, combined with the impact of mass advertising, created news media that “suffer from built-in biases that protect corporate power.”

Political discourse “is limited to an unrepresentative narrow spectrum of politics,” trade unions are treated poorly, while media owners, their interests, families and friends are usually treated as “sacred cows” in newsrooms — off limits to critical reporting.

Though he made his name at the Washington Post, Bagdikian doesn’t spare the newspaper in the book, seeing it as a central part of the US mass media that collectively weakens the public’s ability to understand the economic and political forces that shape the world.

“Criticising capitalism has never been a popular subject in the general news,” Bagdikian argued in 1997, echoing The Media Monopoly’s main argument.

A recording from a recent internal New York Times meeting shows he was right on the money, with the paper’s editorial page editor telling staff: “We are pro-capitalism.”

Why was the most influential paper on the planet so supportive of capitalism? “Because it has been the greatest engine of, it’s been the greatest anti-poverty programme and engine of progress that we’ve seen.”

Returning to Spielberg’s The Post, the film conveniently skates over the Washington Post’s early and strong backing of the US aggression in Vietnam and wealthy socialite Graham’s offer of support to Nixon after he was elected in 1968.

Despite this, as Norman Solomon noted in the Huffington Post last year, Graham wrote in her memoirs, “I don’t believe that who I was or wasn’t friends with interfered with our reporting at any of our publications.”

Robert Parry, a Washington correspondent for the Graham-owned Newsweek magazine in the 1980s, has a different take.

Parry reported “self-censorship because of the coziness between Post-Newsweek executives and senior national security figures,” providing an example from 1987.

“I was told that my story about the CIA funnelling anti-Sandinista money through Nicaragua’s Catholic church had been watered down because the story needed to be run past Mrs Graham and [former US Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger was her house guest that weekend. Apparently, there was fear among the top editors that the story as written might cause some consternation.”

In 1988 Graham revealed her democratic credentials in a speech to the CIA. “We live in a dirty and dangerous world,” she said. “There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn’t.

“I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.”

It seems the legendary Bradlee, who played a key role in reporting the Watergate revelations that led to Nixon resigning in 1974, also stumbled badly in the 1980s.

Speaking to author Mark Hertsgaard for the 1988 book On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency, Bradlee explained that the Washington Post “and probably a good deal of the press gave Reagan not a free ride, but they didn’t use the same standards on him that they had used on [President Jimmy] Carter and on Nixon.”

“We did ease off,” he added.

After 9/11, the US media become even more supportive of the US government. Famously, the highly respected veteran US news man Dan Rather appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman soon after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, solemnly explaining: “George Bush is the president. He makes the decisions. And, you know, as just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where and he will make the call.”

Like the majority of the US press, the Washington Post supported the march to war in Iraq in 2003.

From August 2002 to the launch of the war there were more than 140 front page stories that focused on the Bush administration’s rhetoric against Iraq, while stories questioning the government’s case for war were generally buried inside the paper or sometimes spiked.

Having struggled to get stories past senior editors, veteran reporter Thomas Ricks noted: “There was an attitude among editors — Look, we’re going to war, why do we even worry about all this contrary stuff?”

The coverage was “strikingly one-sided at times,” according to staff writer Howard Kurtz. These stats and quotes are taken from a 2004 front page investigation the Washington Post conducted into its woeful pre-war reporting. Bradlee, having stepped down as executive editor in 1991, said he was “embarrassed” by this public apology.

Shockingly, the Washington Post argued in 2016 that US whistle-blower Edward Snowden, whom the paper had used as a source for stories on the US government’s vast electronic surveillance programmes, should stand trial on espionage charges.

Its reasoning was that his leaks likely endangered “national security” — the same justification given by editors at the New York Times for spiking journalist James Risen’s reports on the US government’s vast domestic surveillance programme in 2004. For more on this, read Risen’s extraordinary expose published by The Intercept earlier this month.

It turns out the government’s crying wolf about “national security” and interfering in the so-called free press isn’t just something that happened when journalists smoked in newsrooms and called sources from payphones.

What all this shows is the Washington Post’s coverage of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate was, in reality, small islands of crusading, dissenting journalism in a sea of stenography to established power.

Worryingly, the sole owner of the Washington Post today is Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO and main stakeholder. Beyond the obvious concerns about corporate influence, the Amazon link is troubling because the internet giant signed a $600m contract with the CIA in 2014 to provide it with a computing “cloud.”

As the US academic Robert McChesney once wrote, “So long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible.”

No doubt Bagdikian, who died in 2016, would strongly agree.

Lifting the lid on US ‘dirty tricks’ at the UN: interview with Katharine Gun

Lifting the lid on US ‘dirty tricks’ at the UN: interview with Katharine Gun
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
December 2008

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 Observers 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 didnt know what was going to happen, so there were times when I was really low, she remembers.

She thinks around 100 other people saw Kozas 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 policywas 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 wars 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 Guns leak was extensive, ramping up the pressure on the Government to release the Attorney Generals 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 dont feel guilty.

Six years after the world-influencing events of 2003, Gun rolls her eyes when I mention Tony Blairs current position as Middle East Peace Envoy.  Ive become very very disillusioned and cynical about politicians in general, she notes.  I dont 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 dont 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, its all about targeting other people.  Its 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 dont 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.