Katharine Gun’s Risky Truth-telling

Truth-telling can be a dangerous undertaking, especially when done by government insiders trying to expose wrongdoing connected to war-making, as British intelligence official Katharine Gun discovered in blowing the whistle on a pre-Iraq War ploy, writes Sam Husseini.

By Sam Husseini

“I felt it was explosive, it really made me angry when I read it. … I genuinely hoped that the information would strengthen the people’s voice. … It could derail the entire process for war.” So said Katharine Gun recently when asked about information she leaked shortly before the invasion of Iraq.

It wasn’t self-serving hyperbole. Daniel Ellsberg, who himself leaked the Pentagon Papers, has called Katharine Gun’s leak “the most important and courageous leak I have ever seen. No one else — including myself — has ever done what Gun did: tell secret truths at personal risk, before an imminent war, in time, possibly, to avert it.”

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

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

And indeed, Ellsberg had asked for such a leak during this period. He had been saying during the run-up to the Iraq invasion: “Don’t wait until the bombs start falling. … If you know the public is being lied to and you have documents to prove it, go to Congress and go to the press. … Do what I wish I had done before the bombs started falling [in Vietnam] … I think there is some chance that the truth could avert war.”

Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers — internal documents which showed a pattern of U.S. government deception about the Vietnam War — in 1971, though he had the information earlier. And while the Pentagon Papers, the leaks by Chelsea Manning to WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency leaks were all quite massive, the Katharine Gun leak was just 300 words. Its power came from its timeliness.

In October of 2002, the U.S. Congress passed the so-called Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002. In November, the U.S. government had gotten the United Nations Security Council to pass a threatening resolution on Iraq, but in most people’s view, it stopped short of actually authorizing force.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. at the time, John Negroponte, said when resolution 1441 was adopted unanimously: “There’s no ‘automaticity’ and this is a two-stage process, and in that regard we have met the principal concerns that have been expressed for the resolution.” That is, the U.S. would intend to come back for a second resolution if Iraq didn’t abide by a “final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations.”

On Feb. 5, 2003, Colin Powell claimed in his infamous presentation at the UN that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Feb. 15, 2003 saw the greatest global protests in history, with millions around the world rallying against the impending Iraq invasion, including over a million near the UN headquarters in New York City.

It was around this time that Katharine Gun, who worked as a language specialist at the Government Communications Headquarters, the British equivalent of the NSA, got a memo from the NSA and then decided to — through intermediaries — leak it to the media. The brief email read in part:

“As you’ve likely heard by now, the Agency is mounting a surge particularly directed at the UN Security Council (UNSC) members (minus US and GBR of course) for insights as to how to membership is reacting to the on-going debate RE: Iraq, plans to vote on any related resolutions, what related policies/ negotiating positions they may be considering, alliances/ dependencies, etc – the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals or to head off surprises. … to revive/ create efforts against UNSC members Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria and Guinea, as well as extra focus on Pakistan UN matters.”

The memo outlined that U.S. and British assets should focus on getting information to pressure member of the UN Security Council to go vote for a war resolution — material for blackmail to put it bluntly. This internal government document could show people — especially those who tend to put stock in government pronouncements — that what President George W. Bush was claiming at the time: “We are doing everything we can to avoid war in Iraq” — was exactly backwards. The U.S. government in fact was doing virtually everything it possibly could to ensure war.

When the British reporters writing the story called the author of the memo, Frank Koza, a top official at the NSA, they were put through to his office. When they shared the nature of their phone call, they were told by an assistant they had “the wrong number.” The reporters noted: “On protesting that the assistant had just said this was Koza’s extension, the assistant repeated that it was an erroneous extension, and hung up.”

The story was ignored by the U.S. media, though we at the Institute for Public Accuracy put out a string of news releases about it. Gun has commented that Martin Bright, one of the reporters who broke the story for the British Observer, had been booked on several U.S. TV networks just after the story was published but they had all quickly cancelled. [See video of an interview with Gun and Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff for Colin Powell, on German TV from last year.]

However, the story did cause headlines around the world — especially in the countries on the Security Council that the memo listed as targets of the surveillance. Through whatever combination of authentic anger or embarrassment at their subservience to the U.S. government being exposed, most of these governments apparently pealed away from the U.S., and no second UN resolution was sought by the war planners.

Rather, George W. Bush started the Iraq war with unilateral demands that Saddam Hussein and his family leave Iraq (and then indicated that the invasion would commence in any case.)

In 2004, the Observer reported that “surveillance played a role in derailing a compromise UN resolution in the weeks before the Iraq war. Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, Mexico’s UN ambassador at the time, has charged that the U.S. spied on a private meeting of six swing countries on the Security Council aimed at a compromise. Zinser told the Observer: ‘The meeting was in the evening. They [U.S. diplomats] call us in the morning before the meeting of the Security Council and they say: “We appreciate you trying to find ideas, but this is not a good idea.”‘”

Meanwhile, Katharine Gun had been found out as the leaker shortly after the memo was published — she has a talent for telling the truth, not so much for covering up apparently — and spent many months awaiting trial. England has no First Amendment that might have protected Gun. It does have a repressive Official Secrets Act, under which she was being prosecuted by the Blair government.

Marcia Mitchell, co-author of The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion, notes however that at the last minute, the Blair government, which was about to face elections “with her signed confession in hand, chose not to present evidence that the invasion of Iraq was, in fact, legal, a demand by the Defense.”

That is, the British government was afraid of what could come out about the legality of the Iraq war in a trial. And so Gun, who was newly married when she exposed the NSA/GCHQ’s activities, was able to avoid jail and continue as a language instructor. She has since been supportive of Edward Snowden and others who expose government wrongdoing.

At the UN

The subject of spying at the UN was again highlighted in 2010 from cables leaked to WikiLeaks by Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning. Reuters reported at the time: “According to one cable, the State Department asked U.S. envoys at U.N. headquarters and elsewhere to procure credit card and frequent flyer numbers, mobile phone numbers, email addresses, passwords and other confidential data from top U.N. officials and foreign diplomats.”

Of course, spying on UN missions by the U.S. is illegal, Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations says: “The receiving State shall permit and protect free communication on the part of the mission for all official purposes…. The official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable.”

Similarly, in 2013, the Guardian reported as G8 leaders meet in Northern Ireland: “Turkey, South Africa and Russia have reacted angrily to the British government demanding an explanation for the revelations that their politicians and senior officials were spied on and bugged during the 2009 G20 summit in London.” The governments were responding to the Guardian story: “GCHQ Intercepted Foreign Politicians’ Communications at G20 Summits,” based on Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks.

Lessons Learned

The Katharine Gun case give us many lessons. First off, it’s a great example to rebut anyone parroting the establishment line that the NSA’s activities are based on stopping terrorism, or that they are merely overzealous efforts at ensuring security, or perhaps typical diplomatic games. Here, the NSA and GCHQ were spying to try to facilitate an aggressive war — the highest war crime under the Nuremberg statues.

Similarly, it highlights what great ideals some “whistleblowers” — the term doesn’t really do justice — are motivated by. And of course, such revealers are much more threatening to war-makers and others when they are acting in parallel with movements. Those movements may also help ward off the government attempting to imprison the whistleblower.

The “rebuttal” that everybody spies and therefore it’s no big deal when the U.S. or some other government is caught doing so similarly doesn’t hold up. Yes, virtually every government spies — but you’re not supposed to get caught. And if a government does get caught, it’s an indication that it’s own people — the very people who are paid to carry out the surveillance — don’t believe in it and are willing to put themselves at risk to expose the spying and the underlying wrongdoing.

Perhaps most importantly, the lesson is not that Katharine Gun’s leak was futile because the U.S. invaded Iraq — any more than the lesson is that the Feb. 15 global protests were in vain. Rather, more of both could have really changed things. If global protests had started in 2002, then the congressional authorization for war in late 2002 could have been prevented. If more people within the war-making governments had their consciences moved by such movements and had leaked more critical information, war could have been forestalled.

And, even if the Iraq invasion happened, if global protests had continued and global solidarity were better coordinated, when it became clear to all that the WMDs not in Iraq were a contrived pretext for aggression, a sustained revulsion against the invasion could have led to the war-makers being held accountable, preventing much suffering in Iraq and elsewhere — and laying the basis for a world free of war.

Sam Husseini is communications director for the Institute for Public Accuracy. Follow him on twitter: @samhusseini

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10 comments for “Katharine Gun’s Risky Truth-telling

  1. November 19, 2014 at 10:53 am

    The article is a keeper.

    But…. I’ve always felt that, with this fascist crowd (politicians since the development of our modern corporatocracy), they will indeed play the role of ‘law and order’ champions, for the crowd and mainly for the smaller crowd (of true, dumb believers) within the wider crowd who can be used to help prop up the undemocratic electoral systems, but when push comes to shove and they don’t get something that they really want by hoodwinking the people, then they will simply drop all pretenses and act. (They are a macho, suicidal lot afterall. Cuba during the missile crisis proves that. The whole NATO strangulation of Russia, despite promises to Russian leaders that it would not go that route, proves that.) Haven’t we seen examples of that as well? Obama ignores Congress and goes to war, for example. And the example of the author proves that. They wanted to launch profitable war in Iraq, and be the big player they are, and they allowed nothing – laws, facts, lost allies – to stand in their way. They could have acted like they cared about life and law and order, but we could have world peace and love too.

  2. chris
    November 19, 2014 at 11:56 am

    Being german, I`m sorry to say that the video you mentioned in the article was not on german, but on danish tv. I`m quite sure, I never read anything about Gun in german papers or magazines, but I`m glad the german government in 2003 didn`t join the `coalition of the willing`. Had it been Merkel, who knows how many dead german soldiers and ptsd-veterans we would have had. Being the opposition leader, she personally met Bush to assure him of her solidarity.

  3. Abe
    November 19, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    Katharine Gun and the Deja Vu of NSA Secret Ops
    By Marcia Mitchell
    http://www.commondreams.org/views/2013/06/14/katharine-gun-and-deja-vu-nsa-secret-ops

  4. Abe
    November 19, 2014 at 1:06 pm

    In 2003, Katharine Gun was awarded the Sam Adams Award, given annually to an intelligence professional who has taken a stand for integrity and ethics.

    The Award is given by the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence, a group of retired CIA officers. It is named after Samuel A. Adams, a CIA whistleblower during the Vietnam War, and takes the physical form of a “corner-brightener candlestick”.

    Adams was an analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency who is best known for discovering underestimated Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army troop numbers during the Vietnam War. He eventually retired from the CIA after claiming there was a conspiracy among officials within U.S. Headquarters in Saigon.

    Adams was in the CIA from 1963 until 1973, but grew frustrated with the perversion of intelligence to meet political objectives. He claimed U.S. Army General William C. Westmoreland had conspired to minimize reported Vietnamese enemy troop strength in 1967.

    Adams testified for the defense in the 1973 espionage trial of Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony J. Russo, accused in connection with the 1971 illegal transmission of the Pentagon Papers, a secret Government-sponsored history of the Vietnam War. Citing Government misconduct, a Federal judge dismissed all charges against the two. Mr. Adams told the court in that trial that he believed there had been political pressures in the military to depict the North Vietnamese and Vietcong in 1967 as weaker than they actually were. After visiting South Vietnam four times between 1966 and 1967, Mr. Adams concluded that senior military intelligence officers were underestimating the strength of the enemy, perhaps by half. He argued for a higher troop count, but late in 1967 the C.I.A. reached an agreement with the military on lower figures. Adams responded with an internal memorandum calling the agreement “a monument of deceit.” In January 1968, after the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the CIA adopted an enemy count along the lines he had recommended. By then, he had left the Vietnamese affairs staff in protest, and was concentrating on Cambodia.

    In 1969 Adams removed CIA documents to argue his case and buried them in the woods near his 250-acre farm in Virginia. After his resignation from the agency in 1973, he sought the support of other intelligence officials to prove that there was a Saigon cover-up. From the massive chronologies Mr. Adams compiled, he detailed his allegations in a Harper’s Magazine article in 1975. He also testified before the House Select Committee on Intelligence, which reached conclusions similar to his own.

    In 1982 Adams provided critical evidence to CBS News reporters who made the documentary “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception”. General Westmoreland subsequently sued both Adams and CBS News for libel, but the case was settled privately.

    Ray McGovern established the Sam Adams Associates “to reward intelligence officials who demonstrated a commitment to truth and integrity, no matter the consequences.” McGovern was a CIA analyst from 1963 to 1990, and in the 1980s chaired National Intelligence Estimates and prepared the President’s Daily Brief. He received the Intelligence Commendation Medal at his retirement, returning it in 2006 in protest at the CIA’s involvement in torture. McGovern co-founded Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), formed in January 2003 to protest the use of faulty intelligence “upon which the US/UK invasion of Iraq was based.”

  5. Bill Bodden
    November 19, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    A superb article and a tribute to a great lady who stands in sharp contrast to her nation’s leadership.

    (Note the typo, first paragraph in the “Lessons Learned” section: Nuremberg statues should be Nuremberg statutes.)

  6. James O'Neill
    November 20, 2014 at 1:19 am

    Sam, there is no such thing as the “Nuremberg statues” or even statutes. The Tribunal that sat in judgment on the German war criminals (and the Tokyo equivalent) defined a war of aggression as the “supreme international crime.” It is a precedent, no more. Unfortunately it is a precedent that has not been utilised since, otherwise Bush, Blair and others would have been charged and probably convicted.

  7. Abe
    November 21, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    The Nuremburg Principles

    The Nuremberg principles were a set of guidelines for determining what constitutes a war crime. The document was created by the International Law Commission of the United Nations to codify the legal principles underlying the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi party members following World War II.

    Principle I
    “Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefore and liable to punishment.”

    Principle II
    “The fact that internal law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law.”

    Principle III
    “The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law.”

    Principle IV
    “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him”.

    This principle could be paraphrased as follows: “It is not an acceptable excuse to say ‘I was just following my superior’s orders'”.

    Previous to the time of the Nuremberg Trials, this excuse was known in common parlance as “Superior Orders”. After the prominent, high profile event of the Nuremberg Trials, that excuse is now referred to by many as “Nuremberg Defense”. In recent times, a third term, “lawful orders” has become common parlance for some people. All three terms are in use today, and they all have slightly different nuances of meaning, depending on the context in which they are used.

    Nuremberg Principle IV is legally supported by the jurisprudence found in certain articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which deal indirectly with conscientious objection. It is also supported by the principles found in paragraph 171 of the Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status which was issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Those principles deal with the conditions under which conscientious objectors can apply for refugee status in another country if they face persecution in their own country for refusing to participate in an illegal war.

    Principle V
    “Any person charged with a crime under international law has the right to a fair trial on the facts and law.”

    Principle VI
    “The crimes hereinafter set out are punishable as crimes under international law:

    (a) Crimes against peace:
    (i) Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances;
    (ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i).

    (b) War crimes:
    Violations of the laws or customs of war which include, but are not limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labor or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory; murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the Seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.

    (c) Crimes against humanity:
    Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhumane acts done against any civilian population, or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds, when such acts are done or such persecutions are carried on in execution of or in connection with any crime against peace or any war crime.”

    Principle VII
    “Complicity in the commission of a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity as set forth in Principle VI is a crime under international law.”

    About the Nuremberg Tribunal

    The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg called the waging of aggressive war “essentially an evil thing.”

    During the trial, the chief American prosecutor, Robert H. Jackson, stated:
    “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

    Associate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas charged that the Allies were guilty of “substituting power for principle” at Nuremberg. “I thought at the time and still think that the Nuremberg trials were unprincipled.”, he wrote. “Law was created ex post facto to suit the passion and clamor of the time.”

    One consequence of the tribunal is that nations who are starting an armed conflict must now argue that they are either exercising the right of self-defense, the right of collective defense, or – it seems – the enforcement of the criminal law of jus cogens. It has made formal declaration of war uncommon after 1945.

    The influence of the tribunal can also be seen in the proposals for a permanent international criminal court, and the drafting of international criminal codes, later prepared by the International Law Commission.

    The Conclusions of the Nuremberg trials served as models for:
    • The Genocide Convention, 1948.
    • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.
    • The Nuremberg Principles, 1950.
    • The Convention on the Abolition of the Statute of Limitations on War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity, 1968.
    • The Geneva Convention on the Laws and Customs of War, 1949; its supplementary protocols, 1977.

    The International Law Commission, acting on the request of the United Nations General Assembly, produced in 1950 the report Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nürnberg Tribunal and in the Judgement of the Tribunal (Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1950, vol. II).

    Article 39 of the United Nations Charter provides that the UN Security Council shall determine the existence of any act of aggression and “shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security”.

    The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court refers to the crime of aggression as one of the “most serious crimes of concern to the international community”, and provides that the crime falls within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, the Rome Statute stipulates that the ICC may not exercise its jurisdiction over the crime of aggression until such time as the states parties agree on a definition of the crime and set out the conditions under which it may be prosecuted.

  8. Abe
    November 21, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    […] bear in mind, people ought to be pretty critical about the Nuremberg principles. I don’t mean to suggest they’re some kind of model of probity or anything. For one thing, they were ex post facto. These were determined to be crimes by the victors after they had won. Now, that already raises questions. In the case of the American presidents, they weren’t ex post facto. Furthermore, you have to ask yourself what was called a “war crime”? How did they decide what was a war crime at Nuremberg and Tokyo? And the answer is pretty simple. and not very pleasant. There was a criterion. Kind of like an operational criterion. If the enemy had done it and couldn’t show that we had done it, then it was a war crime. So like bombing of urban concentrations was not considered a war crime because we had done more of it than the Germans and the Japanese. So that wasn’t a war crime. You want to turn Tokyo into rubble? So much rubble you can’t even drop an atom bomb there because nobody will see anything if you do, which is the real reason they didn’t bomb Tokyo. That’s not a war crime because we did it. Bombing Dresden is not a war crime. We did it. German Admiral Gernetz — when he was brought to trial (he was a submarine commander or something) for sinking merchant vessels or whatever he did — he called as a defense witness American Admiral Nimitz who testified that the U.S. had done pretty much the same thing, so he was off, he didn’t get tried. And in fact if you run through the whole record, it turns out a war crime is any war crime that you can condemn them for but they can’t condemn us for. Well, you know, that raises some questions.

    I should say, actually, that this, interestingly, is said pretty openly by the people involved and it’s regarded as a moral position. The chief prosecutor at Nuremberg was Telford Taylor. You know, a decent man. He wrote a book called Nuremberg and Vietnam. And in it he tries to consider whether there are crimes in Vietnam that fall under the Nuremberg principles. Predictably, he says not. But it’s interesting to see how he spells out the Nuremberg principles.

    They’re just the way I said. In fact, I’m taking it from him, but he doesn’t regard that as a criticism. He says, well, that’s the way we did it, and should have done it that way. There’s an article on this in The Yale Law Journal [“Review Symposium: War Crimes, the Rule of Force in International Affairs,” The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 80, #7, June 1971] which is reprinted in a book [Chapter 3 of Chomsky’s For Reasons of State (Pantheon, 1973)] if you’re interested.

    I think one ought to raise many questions about the Nuremberg tribunal, and especially the Tokyo tribunal. The Tokyo tribunal was in many ways farcical. The people condemned at Tokyo had done things for which plenty of people on the other side could be condemned. Furthermore, just as in the case of Saddam Hussein, many of their worst atrocities the U.S. didn’t care about. Like some of the worst atrocities of the Japanese were in the late ’30s, but the U.S. didn’t especially care about that. What the U.S. cared about was that Japan was moving to close off the China market. That was no good. But not the slaughter of a couple of hundred thousand people or whatever they did in Nanking. That’s not a big deal.

    If the Nuremberg Laws were Applied…
    By Noam Chomsky
    http://www.chomsky.info/talks/1990—-.htm

    • Abe
      November 21, 2014 at 5:27 pm

      Chomsky mentions the case of German Admiral Karl Dönitz (who he misidentifies as “Gernetz”).

      At the start of World War II, Dönitz was the senior submarine officer in the German Navy. In January 1943, Dönitz achieved the rank of Grand Admiral and replaced Erich Raeder as Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy.

      On 1 May 1945, the day after Hitler’s suicide in Berlin, Dönitz became the sole representative of the crumbling German Reich. Dönitz authorised General Alfred Jodl to sign the instrument of unconditional surrender on the morning of 7 May at U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters in Rheims, France.

      At the Nuremburg trials, Dönitz was charged with war crimes, most notably with waging unrestricted submarine warfare against neutral shipping.

      However, his sentence on unrestricted submarine warfare was not assessed, because of similar actions by the Allies: in particular, the British Admiralty on 8 May 1940 had ordered all vessels in the Skagerrak sunk on sight.

      Admiral Chester Nimitz, wartime commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, stated the U.S. Navy had waged unrestricted submarine warfare in the Pacific from the day the U.S. entered the war.

      Thus although Dönitz was found guilty of waging unrestricted submarine warfare against unarmed neutral shipping by ordering all ships in designated areas in international waters to be sunk without warning, no additional prison time was added to his sentence for this crime.

      Dönitz was imprisoned for 10 years in Spandau Prison in what was then West Berlin.

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