Has anything changed since Katharine Gun’s momentous leak against the Iraq War?
by Ian Sinclair
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.