More than a decade ago, President George W. Bush enlisted the National Security Agency in a blackmail scheme to dig up dirt to coerce UN Security Council members to approve his aggressive war against Iraq. But the plot was foiled by a brave British intelligence officer, Katharine Gun, as Dennis J Bernstein reports.
By Dennis J Bernstein
In early 2003, as the U.S. and British governments were seeking international acquiescence to their aggressive war on Iraq, an unexpected cog throw into the propaganda machine was the disclosure that the National Security Agency was spying on UN Security Council members in search of blackmail material.
The revelation received little attention in the mainstream U.S. news media, which was almost fully onboard the pro-war bandwagon, but the disclosure received wide international attention and stopped the blackmail scheme. U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were forced to abandon a UN resolution and invade Iraq with a ragtag “coalition of the willing.”
Several months later, the identity of the leaker was revealed, a young woman named Katharine Gun who worked as a linguist at the NSA’s UK counterpart, British Government Communications Headquarters. Gun lost her job and was charged under British secrecy laws, but the case was dropped because the court would have required the Blair government to disclose that it also had twisted the arms of legal advisers to extract an opinion endorsing the invasion.
Now, a decade later, Edward Snowden, a young American systems analyst working for the NSA, has leaked documents revealing a global surveillance network and prompted another international debate about government spying vs. personal privacy. Katharine Gun joined Pacifica’s “Flashpoints” host Dennis J Bernstein to discuss both cases.
DB: What exactly was your position when you decided to leak a certain document?
KG: My title was linguist analyst. I was a Mandarin Chinese speaker. We translated interceptions and produced reports for the various customers of GCHQ, which are normally the Foreign Office or MI-5 and MI-6.
DB: Can you explain the document you released and the significance of the timing?
KG: It was released at the end of January 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq. I saw an email that had been sent from the NSA to GCHQ. It was a request for GCHQ to help the NSA intercept the communications of six nations that sat on the Security Council at that time. It was to intercept their domestic and office telecoms in order to obtain all the information we could about the delegates, which the U.S. could then use to achieve goals favorable to U.S. interests. They called for the whole gamut of information, which made me think they would potentially use the information to blackmail or bribe the U.N. delegates.
DB: This bugging took place at the United Nations?
KG: Presumably, yes. Or it could involve the United Nations headquarters or also their domestic residence.
DB: The idea was to get the necessary information one way or the other to influence the key members to support the U.S. quest for war in Iraq?
KG: Yes. At the time, if you were not working for the intelligence services or the foreign offices of the U.S. or U.K. you would probably assume that the goal of [President George W.] Bush and [Prime Minister Tony] Blair at that time was to work diplomatically to reach a solution. But we now know, after several leaks over the years about the run-up to the war in Iraq, that war was the agenda all along. When I saw the email it made me think, “This is evidence that war is the agenda.” That’s why I decided the public needed to know.
DB: GCHQ is the British Government Communications Headquarters, the equivalent to the NSA [National Security Agency]. You were working there in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Can you remind us what governments were bugged?
KG: Six nations, smallish countries: Angola, Cameroon, and Pakistan, I think. Mexico was mentioned, and possibly Chile as well. They were countries that are generally not known for their big powerful positions at the U.N.
DB: What went through your mind leading up to the decision to leak this information? This big decision changed history a bit. How did you make this courageous decision that also changed your own life?
KG: I was very concerned. I had informed myself about the realities of Iraq and the situation there because I grew up during the first Gulf War and the following years of sanctions. It was in the back of my mind that Iraq was a country that was virtually destroyed, and that the people were living in impoverished conditions. It made me think that another attack on them would not be fair and justified because there was nothing about Iraq that was a threat to either the U.S. or the U.K.
So when I saw the email and realized what was going on behind closed doors was an attempt to get the U.N. to authorize what would then have become a pre-emptive strike on a country, I thought the public should know about this because it angered me.
DB: What happened after you made this information available? What happened with your position? Were you intimidated, attacked?
KG: Initially I tried to remain anonymous, but when I realized the information revealed in the newspaper at the time was identifiable to GCHQ, I decided I didn’t want to lead a double life at GCHQ and pretend I had nothing to do with it. I confided to my line-manager and said it was my leak. Then I was arrested under suspicion of breaking the Official Secrets Act, questioned, and released on bail for eight months.
In November 2003, much to our surprise, they decided to charge me, despite having waited so long. After discussions with my legal team, which included Liberty, an organization very similar to the U.S. ACLU, we decided I would plead non-guilty, because I personally felt that although I did the act, I didn’t feel guilt, because I didn’t feel I had done anything wrong. Our defense would have been to establish the defense of necessity, which is not yet tested in a court of law. My legal team then asked for all the legal advice leading up the war, and at that point, the prosecution decided to drop all charges against me.
DB: What do you think made them decide to prosecute you, and what information made them drop the charges? Were they trying to backpedal? Were they trying to make sure no other folks in positions like you would do it again?
KG: It’s speculation on my part because obviously they haven’t disclosed. I suspect one of the reasons they charged me was to make an example of my actions to try to deter people from it. On the other hand, when they dropped the charges, I suspect there may have been a variety of reasons. When we asked for the legal advice from the then-Attorney General, at that time his legal advice had not been fully disclosed.
During the run-up to the war, Blair asked for legal advice, obviously. The first draft was about 13 pages long. The language was very cautious – it didn’t say there was a definite reason for war. There were many legal terms of caution, but at some point Blair was told the legal advice was not good enough. He needed a watertight case. The Attorney General then re-drafted his advice, and condensed it to a single page that was then issued to the House of Commons.
That is what persuaded all the MPs in the House of Commons to vote for Britain’s involvement in the war. Eventually information came out, not from myself, but from other means and it became apparent that the legal advice had not been at all watertight to start with.
DB: Daniel Ellsberg said your most important and courageous leak is the only one made in time to avert an imminent possible war. Was your desire to avert war?
KG: Yes, I was hoping the British ministers would see the truth and question the actions of Blair and the secret negotiations he was having with Bush at the time. I wanted more transparency on the issue. I wanted people to question what was going on and to generally challenge this bandwagon for a preemptive strike against a country that was already very impoverished and no threat to anybody whatsoever.
DB: Did you ever hear from folks who based on your revelations, learned they were bugged?
DB: So there were no thank yous coming across from that part of the world?
KG: No. At the time of the leak, my name didn’t come out. Eight months later my name was made public.
DB: Did it change your life?
KG: I lost my job. The secure, full-time, long-term employment was no longer possible. That has made an impact, primarily financially, on my life and my family’s life.
DB: We are now seeing extraordinary NSA leaks from Edward Snowden in the British Guardian. What are your thoughts on this?
KG: I think Snowden is probably is a lot more clued-up than I was at the time. My leak was a single issue. Snowden has had a long period of time working within the U.S. intelligence services. He’s obviously a very technically savvy professional. I admire him for taking this tremendous step, which he thought out very carefully and methodically. He has made some very good points. These kinds of issues should be in the public domain because it involves innocent members of the public. We, the public, should be able to have a measure of a say in these matters.
DB: We hear that people like you, who were leaking before the war, and Snowden now, are putting people’s lives in jeopardy, endangering the people. We hear that secrecy is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks, and that many have been prevented by this kind of secrecy, investigation, wiretapping and bugging that’s going on now.
KG: There is absolutely no evidence that my leaks in any way endangered anybody else.
DB: But you were accused of that.
KG: Yes, they love to throw accusations around, there’s no doubt about that. But in my case, the majority of views supported my actions. In Snowden’s case, people who have a fair and just understanding of the issues at-large are supportive of his actions, as they would be of Private Manning, who is currently on trial.
DB: Did you lose any friends or associates, over this?
KG: Ironically, not really. Many of my friends and colleagues from GCHQ have also left GCHQ, partly to progress in their professions. They didn’t see much chance for their linguistic skills progressing much further within GCHQ and I continue to be in touch with them.
DB: If you had it all to do over again, would you?
KG: That’s a difficult question. Now I’m married and have a child. I would hope that I would still do it, but perhaps I would be more savvy about how I did it. Snowden was very clued-up and seems to know exactly what he should be doing – how to stay safe and keep out of the way of being unjustly arrested and tried without due process of law.
DB: Your language skills. Are you using them now?
KG: Not now. I’m only fluent in Mandarin Chinese. I speak some Japanese and am now trying to learn Turkish.
DB: That may in handy in the next decade or so. Thank you for talking to us.