A British Precursor to Snowden Case

More than a decade ago, as President George W. Bush sought legal cover for invading Iraq, the National Security Agency spied on key UN diplomats with the hope of blackmailing them. But British intelligence officer Katharine Gun leaked the secret and – like Edward Snowden today – changed the debate, Marcia Mitchell recalls.

By Marcia Mitchell

“It’s déjà vu all over again,” baseball icon Yogi Berra famously observed, a comment that is eminently appropriate today to Edward Snowden’s leak of secret surveillance operations by the National Security Agency. The déjà vu now refers to an earlier leak of the NSA’s secrets – before America was taking notice.

Clandestine snooping by the NSA? A member of an intelligence agency leaking secrets to expose the operation? All that’s new here is the abundant attention focused on this latest example of the NSA’s enormous power to play by whatever rules it establishes — or by no rules at all.

Former British intelligence officer Katharine Gun. (Photo credit: BBC)

Last time around, it was the London Observer revealing NSA’s clandestine operation. This time it’s the Guardian. British press lighting the stage, illuminating an American cast. Also, entering into the heated, certainly contentious, discussion about the Snowden disclosure is a panoply of concerns. National security versus civil rights, the extent and powers of the Patriot Act, the sharing of secrets, hero versus criminal, whistleblower or leaker. All hot topics.

Here’s the déjà vu aspect that deserves our attention: A decade ago, this same powerful agency launched a spy operation against representatives of six members of the UN Security Council in an attempt to convince those members to vote in favor of a U.S.-UK resolution legitimizing the invasion of Iraq.

It doesn’t take rocket science to determine just how personal information about the six diplomats could be used to influence their vote to — according to NSA’s secret memorandum — “obtain results favorable to US goals.” In the ten-year-old case, newspapers worldwide (except in the U.S.) ran banner headlines about “US Dirty Tricks at the UN.” Readers wondered about a game of high-stakes blackmail.

Katharine Gun, a British Secret Service officer stationed at GCHQ in Cheltenham, England, received a copy of NSA’s invitation to join in the illegal UN Security Council operation, and made the same decision as did Snowden. She leaked the information. She was 27 at the time. Snowden is 29.

Within a matter of weeks, Katharine Gun was arrested for high crime against her country. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair withdrew their controversial war resolution to the UN Security Council, but went to war anyway with a so-called “coalition of the willing.”

Later, looking back, Michael Hayden, the NSA’s director at the time, told C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb that the NSA works only within the confines of the law, within “what’s legally permitted.” This would not be the only time he would insist that everything the NSA did was in compliance with the law.

But one of the questions that will not go away, especially with the present attention focused on the Snowden case, is what U.S. intelligence can do legally and what it cannot. For the most part, the fact that Hayden’s claim is at best controversial and at worst a lie has escaped public notice until now. But not this time, because the media are watching and Snowden is speaking out.

In an extensive interview, Snowden defended his seeking sanctuary in Hong Kong and denied that he was, in fact, defecting to China, which some pundits have called “an enemy of America.” China, he observed, is not America’s “enemy.” The two countries are significant trade partners and are not at war. Apparently, he feels safer in Hong Kong than in the U.S.

Snowden left the country believing he was a target of a vengeful government determined to imprison him for the rest of his life for having leaked NSA secrets. As for questionable Big Brother behavior by intelligence agencies, “It will only get worse until policy changes,” he said.

Seeking a paradigm switch, which both protects individual privacy and the nation’s security, presents a challenge to all Americans — except for those determined to retain the status quo.

Snowden is right to be concerned about the quality of his future life. Katharine Gun didn’t run. After first denying that it was she who leaked the NSA illegal spy operation, she confessed. Married only a few months, she knew at the time that her plans for the future were shattered. After a year awaiting trial, charges against her were dropped the day her trial opened at the Old Bailey. The UK government chose not to argue that the invasion of Iraq was legal, a demand by the Defense.

Still, life for Katharine Gun – after she was granted freedom – has been hard. An expert in Oriental languages and a Mandarin translator at the time of her arrest, she has found it difficult to find and keep employment. For a time, she tried living in another country. She knows that nothing will ever be the same. Yet, she has no regrets.

As she left the courtroom, Katharine Gun’s response to questions about why she did what she did were very much like Snowden’s. “I only followed my conscience,” she said, adding, “I would do it again.” This holds today.

Actor Sean Penn put it beautifully in speaking about Katharine Gun: “It was a decision of conscience in a world where nobody celebrates that. She will go down in history as a hero of the human spirit.”

But ex-Prime Minister Blair saw Gun differently, and would likely see Snowden through the same lens. Blair said: “We are going to be in a very dangerous situation as a country if people feel they can simply spill out secrets or details of security operations, whether false or true, and get away with it.”

For Snowden, time will tell what “getting away with it” really means.

Marcia Mitchell is co-author of The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion.

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10 comments on “A British Precursor to Snowden Case

  1. skiimaan on said:

    In this case, Edward Snowden should feel lucky that the Obama administration, NSA are not any criminal organization. When there’s a snitch in an organized crime, the mob bosses would send out hit men to terrorize the snitch’s family and terminate the snitch’s life. All that the US government does is to ask Snowden’s relatives about his whereabouts, to find if he broke any law, to bring him home gracefully by jet, to try him in a court of law, to give him up to a lifetime prison term if convicted.

    • rosemerry on said:

      How generous. Bradley Manning will love his life in prison, like so many others kindly treated by the US “Justice System”. Are you serious?

  2. F. G. Sanford on said:

    In order to believe this is anything other than a surveillance program designed to monitor our own citizens, you’d have to be dumb enough to believe that foreign intelligence operatives, subversives and other agents provocateurs would be dumb enough to communicate with cell phones or email.

    Most ham radio operators have probably heard a so-called “numbers station”. They often operate on short wave bands using “single sideband”, so you would never hear them on an ordinary radio. Sometimes, they brazenly broadcast in the middle of the AM band, hiding in plain sight along with Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. Without an expensive communications radio…or a really cheap, primitive home-made regenerative receiver using 1930′s technology, you’d never hear this. But I’m sure somebody’s listening. The strings of numbers are probably “book cipher” codes of the kind made famous (but misrepresented for the sake of the plot) in Ken Follett’s novel, “The Key to Rebecca”.

    The bottom line is, the program Snowden exposed, sophisticated though it is, is not directed at professional “bad guys”. They’re not that stupid. Skillfully used, even primitive book cipher codes are almost unbreakable. Why take chances with a cell phone? But, if you’re looking for potentially embarrassing, exploitable personal, financial or medical information, it’s pretty hard to beat what the NSA’s got going.

    If you’re curious to know what a numbers station sounds like, here’s my impersonation:

    Bup-a dup dup bee bottle bop. Boop-de doop doop dwee dittle pop. Bootle-ee do, de do do do, Zweetle-ee dwee-op, zip boo bop. That’s our them song, welcome to this evenings program: one three seven four, six six two three, one eight seven seven, two one five three, three two nine four, eight four six five, four four seven two……….(this goes on for several minutes)…………two nine three five, one zero two seven, eight one six six. That’s our program for this evening. Thanks for listening. Bup-a dup dup bee bottle bop. Boop-de doop doop dwee dittle pop. Bootle-ee do, de do do do, Zweetle-ee dwee-op, zip boo bop. (Dead silence follows.)

    Folks, I ain’t makin’ this up. And yeah, the theme songs usually are that bad. So, if you really want to know what the “bad guys” are up to, ask your Congressman about “numbers stations”, and what he’s doing to counter the threat. Or whether he knows about messages embedded in the pixels of digital photographs.

    • Ed Armas on said:

      So to whom is are these programs directed? Agreed, the bad guys wouldn’t be that dumb??? However, if at some point in the future where desertification has wiped out agriculture, where water is at a premium, where there are food riots and rebellion against the government, where oil shortages are made worse by a military fighting a global war, where there is mass movement of populations e.g.Dust Bowl, then the control of national citizenry becomes paramount. The NSA sweep of all domestic media outlets makes sense only in this context and provides the source for domestic population control.

  3. Eddie on said:

    I’ve come to believe that this data mining/TIA/etc is 98% a ruse that GW Bush & the Neo-cons initially launched because:

    1.) they were caught flat-footed by 9/11 because W & friends were anti-government and anti-Clinton, and Clinton had (to his credit, which isn’t something I get to say very often) — during the presidential transition — warned W that Osama bin Laden was a continuing threat. So, of course the feckless W (assisted by oil-monger Cheney) petulantly ignored all the growing warnings (because they were associated with the Clinton administration) in mid-2001 and when 9/11 happened, W & the Neo-cons wanted to do damage control PR, and also saw it as an opportunity to implement many of their pet-projects, so they did all this ‘intelligence’ stuff as if to imply that the reason 9/11 happened was due to intelligence restrictions, NOT their own incompetence/indifference.
    Kind of a ‘slamming the barn-door shut after the horse has escaped’ type of gambit.

    2.) It secondarily provides employment and profits to the right-winger/Big Brother types who actually really believe-in/like repressive security states. The conservatives have always liked this approach, from the Joe McCarthy era, through the Cointelpro, Echelon, etc. — and that’s only from the 1950s forward.

    Now the spineless Obama continues to do whatever the conventional power structure wants, and whatever he thinks he has to do to not appear ‘soft’ to the rabid right-wingers who will NEVER accept anything a Democrat does anyway, just on general principle.

  4. Shawn on said:

    Eddie, if Obama were spineless, he would have killed himself long ago. Instead, he faced huge opposition at every step and won re-election to the top job in the world. One may easily agree with his positions, but to call him spineless is to negate everything you wrote except your last phrase. If you are the superior spine guy, why don’t you repeat his record of winning the US presidency, twice. Otherwise, stick to the facts, and your posts might be more influential.

  5. Shawn on said:

    I meant, one may easily disagree with Obama’s positions, not agree.

  6. All I can say to war criminals like Tony Blair is, we are going to be in a very dangerous situation as a country if we let people like you, George Bush, and Barack Obama decide who they want to kill in secret.

  7. incontinent reader on said:

    We are in a difficult situation because our leaders and those like Blair have committed or have caused to be committed unspeakable crimes, killing, maiming and dispossessing millions of people. They achieved it, and up to now have gotten away with it, by cheating all of us. In the end we are all responsible, and Snowden’s disclosures are a step in taking responsibility and taking back the country.

  8. rosemerry on said:

    Bliar (sic) has NO redeeming features and has destroyed any idea of ‘Labour Party’ for the workers.