Katharine Gun’s Risky Truth-telling

From the Archive: On March 2, 2003, British intelligence official Katharine Gun blew the whistle on a pre-Iraq War ploy. On today’s 15-year anniversary of that event, we republish a 2014 article about Gun’s truth-telling by Sam Husseini.

By Sam Husseini (first published Nov. 19, 2014)

“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

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

  1. March 7, 2018 at 16:21

    The NSA is no different than most of the Deep State bureaucracies. They have a vested financial interest in perpetual warfare. It’s the gift that keeps on giving: (1) bigger budgets; (2) bigger bureaucracies; (3) bigger opportunities for promotion; (4) bigger sense of self-importance and self-righteousness. WAR IS A RACKET for shameless racketeers.

  2. rosemerry
    March 4, 2018 at 17:18

    If the cowardly USA “free media” had published the information in the leak and allowed Marin Bright to be interviewed, this could have fueled much more debate and evidence-based opposition which perhaps could have stopped Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Blair from the invasion of Iraq.

  3. Don Midwest USA
    March 4, 2018 at 12:04

    The French polymath Bruno Latour says that The New Climate Regime has been the major force in geopolitics for the last 3 decades. It forced all the nations on earth to sign the COP 21 agreement to limit greenhouse gasses.

    “National Security” involves sovereign nations, but CO2, water, oceans, soil, animal migration including human migration , these sometimes are bounded by maps. Nation states are on the wrong side of the curve

    Today Latour has three tweets today:

    Bret Stephens in the NYT 3-3 appeals to the resurrection of the “free world” against the return of dictatorships. He forgets that the free world thought to be “freed” from the Earth. If it ever resurrects, it will be as a world “attached” to the Terrestrial.

    The whole problem is not to resurrect the “free world” against dictatorships, but to attach states to the Terrestrial to avoid the new reactionary return to nation states and ethnic boundaries. Not freedom against dictatorship but new attachments against old attachments.

    The reemergence of nationalism everywhere makes no sense, if it’s not seen as a counter-reaction to the sheer implausibility of a “free world” detached from earthly conditions. The new struggles are to decide what is meant by reattachment to Earth.

    A readable interview on him is in the recent LA Review of Books

    The Critical Zone of Science and Politics: An Interview with Bruno Latour


  4. David G
    March 3, 2018 at 16:51

    Gun was on RT’s “Going Underground” today.

  5. john wilson
    March 3, 2018 at 06:00

    The trouble with leaks is, that’s exactly what they are, just a few small drops of water when what’s really needed is a deluge or torrent of information to be put out there, because a small leak goes unnoticed and be easily fixed.

    • mike k
      March 3, 2018 at 16:21

      We should start an organization to support truth tellers, and solicit contributions to help them. Or maybe just send funds to WikiLeaks?

  6. geeyp
    March 3, 2018 at 02:36

    Wow, thank you, nonsense factory for reminding us of David Kelly. I recall him testifying and then he was killed. It seemed to happen just like that. There were around 50 expert/chemical scientists who died under the typical “mysterious circumstances” during the period 2002-2012. Some were American and many were overseas. I lost count after that. Anyone who can identify the origin of, say a sample of anthrax, who is not trustworthy in the “authorities” mind, was and is in danger. David Kelly was a great man.

  7. nonsense factory
    March 3, 2018 at 02:06

    This story reminds me of that of David Kelly and perhaps explains why the Blair government chose to have him murdered rather than risk a trial at which Kelly might have revealed many things – from the fact that Saddam had no biological weapons program, and that Britain knew this, to the role Britain played in helping Saddam construct his original biological weapons program in the 1980s, in which the UK biological warfare center at Porton Down likely played a central role.

    “Kelly had become embroiled in an ugly spat between the government and the BBC over controversial news reports that officials had “sexed up” intelligence reports on Iraq prior to the war. Kelly’s death closely followed the revelation last week that he was the principal source of the BBC reports.” – Science Magazine, 25 July 2003

    Within hours of his death the coverup had begun:
    “A letter written by Lord Hutton, who chaired the public inquiry into Dr Kelly’s death, shows he was asked to do the job just three hours after the Iraq weapons expert was found dead. . . Critics have never been satisfied with the conclusions of the Hutton Inquiry, which decided that Dr Kelly, 59, who worked for the Ministry of Defence, died from loss of blood after cutting his wrist with a blunt gardening knife.” – 13 July 2013, Daily Mail

    It seems the US and British governments have quite a few dirty secrets related to biological weapons programs that they don’t want to see come to light, doesn’t it?

    • nonsense factory
      March 3, 2018 at 02:12

      Unfortunately US and British media has tried to sweep the David Kelly story under the rug (the claim he killed himself in not supported, and bears interesting similarities to the claimed suicide of Army scientist Bruce Ivins in 2008, followed by the bogus FBI claims that he was the party responsible for the anthrax letters of 9/18/2001 and 10/9/2001). So, we have to turn to Russian news sources to get more comprehensive discussion of the issue:

      “As specialist medical professionals, we do not consider the evidence given at the Hutton inquiry has demonstrated that Dr. David Kelly committed suicide. Dr. Nicholas Hunt, the forensic pathologist at the Hutton inquiry, concluded that Dr. Kelly bled to death from a self-inflicted wound to his left wrist. We view this as highly improbable,” Dr. Smith wrote.”

  8. March 2, 2018 at 21:30

    Thanks… great story: exemplary person. It is also worth noting that Jeffrey Sterling(another whistleblower) was recently released from prison.

  9. backwardsevolution
    March 2, 2018 at 20:11

    “The story was ignored by the U.S. media.”

    I’ll just bet it was. Any time truth starts to wriggle up between the tight cracks, the U.S. media beat it down with a thick stick, call out people who see it as conspiracy theorists, downplay its significance, build a perimeter wall around it and pretend it’s not there, or distract the public’s attention by providing a fabricated bad man, i.e. Russiagate.

    Time for these U.S. media monopolies to be split up. Six corporations own 90% of all media. There are laws on the books against monopolies like this, but they are not being enforced. Until they are, nothing will change. Just another bought-and-paid-for arm of the Deep State.

    Keep an eye on what Google, Youtube (which is owned by Google), Facebook and Twitter are currently doing, controlling all dissent.

    President Xi of China just disallowed the words “I disagree”. How are we any better?

    • willow
      March 3, 2018 at 14:13

      time to reinstate the Smith-Mundt Act that Obama repealed in 2013. That law, that had been in place since the end of WW2, prohibited the US government from propagandizing US Citizens. Whereas propaganda was once illegal, now corporate media is just another department of the pentagon, programming us 24/7 to accept endless regime change wars. They have been so effective, that the peace movement no longer exists.

  10. Annie
    March 2, 2018 at 19:31

    Having participated in the NY marches against the Iraq war, as well as attending lectures by truth tellers like Scott Ritter, who was a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq from 1991 to 1998, who claimed, and frequently did so, that there were no weapons of mass destruction. In my opinion it was the mainstream media’s unwillingness to challenge the assertions of the Bush/Cheney White House, as well as their complicity in spinning their lies and unwillingness to give greater coverage to those marches, to those challenging the administration’s assertions that diminished their impact on preventing that lie of a war. Truth in this country is up against a system that is quite powerful and all to willing to squelch it. We are morally bankrupt in that regard.

  11. jose
    March 2, 2018 at 18:43

    Dear Joe, after reading this article, a slew but brief bursts of poetry comes to mind: For instance,” A patriot must always be ready to defend his country, against his government”, ” A love my country, however, I fear my government”, or from Alfred Lord Tennyson ” Ring out the false, ring in the true” One has to admire people such as Gun, Manning, Ellsberg and many others for disseminating the truth at great risks to themselves. Thanks to their valiant efforts, we are better informed today than ever before. I wonder what could have happened if their reporting had been heeded. We need more of them to help us all to better understand and see through the propaganda and deceptions. Again, Alfred Tennyson ” To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” Good post Mr. Tedesky.

  12. mike k
    March 2, 2018 at 18:24

    When I first arrived by taxi at the campus of he University of Hawaii, we went through a gate, above which was inscribed, “Above all nations stands Mankind.” In reflecting on this later, I thought, “Yes, and above Mankind stands the Truth.” There is no higher value than the Truth.

  13. Joe Tedesky
    March 2, 2018 at 18:18

    If England doesn’t have a VIPS chapter then Katharine Gun should start one. I find it regrettable that in today’s American and English society that the very patriots who do want to do what’s right are placed in the penalty box of sorts, where they are perceived as being traitors, and or if not traitors something unpatriotic never the less. These whistle blowers are all of what is left of a great society who had high hopes to make the world a better place. These valiant truth tellers are the believers who decided to work from within the system, and yet when their conscience and honesty were put to the test, the were punished for making the right choice. We citizens need to honor these good people who gave everything up to allow us other citizens to know just exactly what our governments are doing, and yet their names are hardly even known to the naïve public for the MSM ignores their plight all together.

  14. Abe
    March 2, 2018 at 17:40

    In February 2018, it was announced that a film, Official Secrets, recounting Gun’s actions in 2003 was due to begin filming in March 2018 with Keira Knightley taking the part of Gun.

    • geeyp
      March 2, 2018 at 23:50

      I would like to see how accurate this film portrayal turns out. I hope it is on point. Is anyone getting the interview video to actually play? The set-up is there, it just doesn’t proceed.

      • geeyp
        March 2, 2018 at 23:53

        I am, of course, referencing the Gun interview with Wilkerson.

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