New Film Shows How UK Whistleblower Almost Stopped the Iraq Invasion in 2003

In 2003, Katharine Gun, a young specialist working for Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, exposed a highly confidential memo that revealed the United States’ collaboration with Britain in collecting sensitive information on United Nations Security Council members in order to pressure them into supporting the Iraq invasion. Gun leaked the memo to the press, setting off a chain of events that jeopardized her freedom and safety, but also opened the door to putting the entire legality of the Iraq invasion on trial. 

Acclaimed Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg described Gun’s action as “the most important and courageous leak I have ever seen.” Gun’s incredible story is depicted in the new film Official Secrets, which premieres in the U.S. August 30. We speak with Katharine Gun; the British journalists who reported on Gun’s revelations in The Observer newspaper, Martin Bright and Ed Vulliamy; and Gavin Hood, director of Official Secrets.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: As the British government says it’s identified the person who leaked cables that forced out the British ambassador to the United States for calling President Trump “inept,” we look at the real-life political thriller of a British intelligence specialist who risked everything to blow the whistle on U.S. dirty tricks at the United Nations in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion.

In 2003, Katharine Gun was working for Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, known as GCHQ, the intelligence agency similar to the National Security Agency here, when she opened a top-secret NSA memorandum. The highly confidential memo revealed the United States was collaborating with Britain in collecting sensitive information on United Nations Security Council members in order to pressure them into supporting the Iraq invasion. Guided by her conscience, Katharine Gun defied her government and leaked the memo to the press, setting off a chain of events that jeopardized her freedom, her safety, but also opened the door to putting the entire Iraq invasion on trial.

Acclaimed Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg described Katharine Gun’s action as “the most important and courageous leak I have ever seen.” Dan Ellsberg said, “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.”

Well, now Katharine Gun’s story is being told in the new film Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightley. This is the trailer.

TINTIN: [played by Peter Guinness] Katharine Gun? What were you employed to do?

KATHARINE GUN: [played by Keira Knightley] I translated signals intelligence, and I reported anything of interest to my clients.

TINTIN: You’re a spy.

KATHARINE GUN: Did you get this email?

ANDY DUMFRIES: [played by Jack Farthing] The Americans want us to help them get a U.N. resolution for war.

TINTIN: So, you work for the British government.

KATHARINE GUN: No.

TINTIN: No?

UNIDENTIFIED: This proposed war is historically unpopular.

KATHARINE GUN: I work for the British people. I do not gather intelligence so that the government can lie to the British people.

JACQUELINE JONES: [played by Katherine Kelly] Intelligence may be being manipulated to take this country to war.

KATHARINE GUN: I could get you a copy.

JASMINE: [played by MyAnna Buring] You’re asking me to collude in a breach of the Official Secrets Act. Some call that treason.

BRITISH INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: Someone has betrayed their government and their country.

BEN EMMERSON: [played by Ralph Fiennes] You might need our help.

KATHARINE GUN: If we do not go public, we would be conceding that no one can ever tell the people when their government is lying.

BEN EMMERSON: Your marriage will be interrogated.

KATHARINE GUN: My husband had absolutely nothing to do with this.

JERRY: [played by Chris Reilly] He’s a Muslim.

KATHARINE GUN: I’m sorry?

BEN EMMERSON: You chose loyalty to your country over loyalty to your government, your marriage and yourself. I think that speaks rather highly of you.

JUDGE HYAM: [played by Kenneth Cranham] Katharine Teresa Gun, you’re charged with an offense of the Official Secrets Act.

BEN EMMERSON: Do you want to risk it all?

JUDGE HYAM: How do you plead?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for the new movie Official Secrets, based on the true-life story of whistleblower Katharine Gun. At the time, her actions received very little attention from journalists in the United States — unless you were watching Democracy Now! In 2004, Democracy Now! interviewed Katharine Gun. I asked her why she decided to leak the memo.

KATHARINE GUN: When I saw this email asking GCHQ’s help to bug the six swing nations to gather a vote for war with Iraq, I was very angry at first and very saddened that it had come to this, and that despite all the talk from both Tony Blair and George Bush about how important it was to get the U.N. on board and to legitimize any kind of aggression, that they were actually going around it in such low-handed manner. So, I decided that the risk to my career was minute compared to the upcoming war in Iraq, and the best thing to do for me was to leak this information to the press, so that everybody else could have the information, and hopefully it could avert this disastrous course of events that have occurred.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Katharine Gun back in 2004. It’s 15 years later.

For more on this incredible story and the real-life thriller that is coming out on August 30th in movie theaters around the country — our guest, Katharine Gun, is played by Keira Knightley — we’re joined by Katharine Gun herself, the whistleblower, former employee of Britain’s global surveillance center, GCHQ, played by actress Keira Knightley, yes.

We’re joined also by Martin Bright, who is the journalist who reported Gun’s revelations in The Observer, as well as Ed Vulliamy. He was the Observer journalist who was working in Washington on this story, as well, with Martin. At the time, the paper, their paper, The Observer, was openly supporting the Iraq invasion, leading up to it. Also with us, the director of Official Secrets, Gavin Hood.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! And it’s so relevant to be talking about this today, as the British government is talking about cracking down on the leaker of the memos of the British ambassador to the U.S. that forced him out. He was forced to resign, because it showed that he called President Trump “inept,” and he said, you know, the singular reason that the Trump administration pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal was because it was signed by President Obama, and other issues. But they not only are saying they are going to crack down hard on the leaker, but they’re also saying they will crack down on the press, any press that reports this in Britain. We thought it was really interesting to talk to you at this time. But, Katharine, how old were you in 2003? Again, this is before the Iraq War. What? January of 2003. Iraq War was in March. Tell us the moment. You’re sitting at the equivalent of the NSA. You worked for GCHQ in Britain. And you were what? A Chinese translator?

KATHARINE GUN: Yeah, Mandarin Chinese, linguist.

AMY GOODMAN: So you had nothing to do with what was going on, covering stuff in Iraq or working on that issue.

KATHARINE GUN: No, no.

AMY GOODMAN: But what did you see in your email?

KATHARINE GUN: Well, it was a memo from a chap called Frank Koza, who worked at the NSA. And yeah, it was just a request from the NSA to — for GCHQ to assist them in bugging the domestic and office communications of the six U.N. Security Council delegates.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait a second. In bugging, in spying on, in eavesdropping, wiretapping, whatever?

KATHARINE GUN: Right. Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And who were these six countries?

KATHARINE GUN: You’re putting me on the spot now.

AMY GOODMAN: I know. Gavin, who worked on the screenplay and is the director.

GAVIN HOOD: Yes. Angola, Cameroon, Bulgaria, Chile —

MARTIN BRIGHT: Pakistan.

GAVIN HOOD: — Pakistan and Mexico. Yeah, and those are the —

AMY GOODMAN: So, bugging these six countries.

GAVIN HOOD: Who were the nonpermanent members on the U.N. Security Council at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: And the idea was they would figure out which way they were going to vote, so that they could sway them.

KATHARINE GUN: Well, no, more than that.

GAVIN HOOD: More than that.

KATHARINE GUN: The idea was to gather information that they could use to bribe them or, you know, threaten them into voting yes for the resolution.

GAVIN HOOD: So, yes, tremendous amount of pressure coming down on these countries, because if Blair and Bush had been able to get that U.N. resolution for the invasion, the weapons of mass destruction issue would have been almost pretty much irrelevant, because there’s two legal ways to go to war. It’s you either go to war based on a U.N. resolution — we’re all going together — or you’ve got to prove, you know, a genuine threat to your — you know, it’s a self-defense argument.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Katharine, you read this memo. You’re working on translating Mandarin. But you see this memo that went out to everyone in your area. And what did you think?

KATHARINE GUN: Well, I was just appalled. I mean, my first reaction was shock and anger. And I felt it was explosive information. You know, I thought it was something that people needed to know about, because it was basically exposing what was going on behind the scenes and the fact that, you know, all the flowery words that they used in front of the cameras about doing everything diplomatically was a sham.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Blair was the prime minister of Britain at the time.

KATHARINE GUN: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what did you do?

KATHARINE GUN: Well, I didn’t do anything immediately, but I went home. It was a Friday when I saw the email. And I went home and thought about it over the weekend. And then, on Monday morning, I went back into my workplace, and I just photo — well, I made a copy of it, and I printed it out and folded it up into my handbag and put it for the end of the day to take it out of the office.

AMY GOODMAN: You took it out.

KATHARINE GUN: Yeah, I took it out.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you do with it?

KATHARINE GUN: And then I mailed it to a contact, who then passed it on to a journalist, who then passed it on to Martin Bright.

AMY GOODMAN: Which takes us to Mr. Martin Bright. But we’re going to go to a break, and then we’re going to come back to this discussion. And, guys, you do not want to miss this story and what would then take place. We’re talking about Official Secrets. Yes, it’s a new Hollywood movie that’s coming out, but it is the real-life story of Katharine Gun. How old were you at the time?

KATHARINE GUN: I was 27.

AMY GOODMAN: Twenty-seven years old, working for the — well, for British intelligence. And she sees this memo that says that the evidence for going to war would not be based on intelligence of whether there were WMD, but on trying to get something on the U.N. Security Council members, personal or whatever, to get them to vote for the invasion, to back President George W. Bush. This is Democracy Now! Back in 30 seconds.