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Katharine Gun Official Secrets True Story Interview
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As the Trump administration shreds norms of American governance like a Shih Tzu going to town on a roll of toilet paper, the last worst president is largely silent, busied with canine portraiture and now the subject of nearly fond nostalgia. But George W. Bush did something that, thankfully, Trump hasn’t pulled off yet: He took us to war. Across the world, millions protested the invasion of Iraq, doing their own small parts to attempt to prevent the war. But Katharine Gun, who’s now the subject of a new film, the Gavin Hood-directed Official Secrets, did a lot more—and became one of the most important political whistleblowers that most Americans have never heard of.
During the American-lead 2003 campaign for United Nations support for an invasion of Iraq, Gun, who’s played in the film by Keira Knightley, was a 28 year-old Mandarin translator working for the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters, the nation’s equivalent of the American NSA. She was a spy—the communications she translated had been obtained covertly, but she did the work in the interest of protecting Britain. She also opposed the pending war. By the time Gun and around 100 of her colleagues received the emailed memo that would change her life, she “had already come to the conclusion that the arguments for war with Iraq were not really valid arguments,” she tells me.
The email, which was sent by an American NSA official, suggested that the US was just as well aware that it couldn’t earn UN support through valid arguments alone: The memo outlined a plan to bug diplomats from non-permanent UN Security Council Nations Chile, Pakistan, Bulgaria, Guinea, Angola, and Cameroon in search of intelligence that could be used to cajole and possibly even blackmail them into supporting the invasion.
“It was like a neon sign that was flashing at me,” Gun says. The work she’d signed up to do was “covered by British law, and would be something to do with whatever that was necessary to keep British lives safe.” The memo, however represented “the actual twisting of diplomatic arms in order to secure a war which [was] based on lies.”
But it also represented an opportunity to show the world the tactics American and British officials were willing to employ in their push for an invasion. “They’re talking about diplomatic negotiations, and having all the cards on the table, but behind that what they’re doing is trying to bribe UN diplomatic members to vote for a war which has no legal justifications,” Gun says. She hoped that “if people know about the lengths to which they’ve gone to legitimize an invasion of Iraq, then it would blow apart, and people will suddenly think, ‘No, this isn’t right,’ and the whole house of cards would come tumbling down.”
However, Gun was well aware that any attempt to release the memo would find her running afoul of Britain’s Official Secrets Act, which criminalizes the leaking of intelligence-related information. “When you have the initial GCHQ induction course for new arrivals,” she said, they tell you… not to trust journalists, to be careful to keep everything confidential.” Still, she printed off the memo, tucked it into her purse, and took it home. Later, she gave the document to a friend, who passed it onto a contact in the anti-war movement, until it finally landed with journalists Martin Bright and Ed Vulliamy The Observer. They published the scoop in March 2003—putting Gun directly in the crosshairs of law enforcement, and sparking a legal fight for her freedom.
Official Secrets director Gavin Hood, journalist Martin Bright, and Katharine Gun at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival.
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To tell too much more of the story would spoil the film, but one part of its ending is clear. Though celebrated Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg would later call Gun’s actions “the most important and courageous leak in history” due to her efforts to save lives through preventing a war, she obviously didn’t succeed in stopping the invasion. Hundreds of thousands were killed.
The invasion “was a huge blow,” says Gun. “I did feel like, ‘Well, I failed.’”
But the invasion was forced to proceed with the backing of Bush’s “coalition of the willing”—instead of with the support of the United Nations. America, Britain, and Spain withdrew their proposed resolution on invading Iraq when it became clear that it would not garner the necessary Security Council votes, in part because of the information Gun brought to light.
“They failed. And they failed, in part, I believe, because Katharine Gun leaked that memo,” Official Secrets director Gavin Hood told Democracy Now!. Instead, the American coalition was forced to stake its claim to a legal invasion on grounds of self defense, including now-infamously untrue claims about weapons of mass destruction.
“That means that, in theory, the war could still be classified as an illegal war,” Gun says.
Despite the millions affected by the Iraq War, it’s now far removed from British and American news cycles, displaced from the headlines by today’s political turmoil. But the falsehoods and unnecessary wars of yesteryear likely have influenced the waning support for public institutions today. “It’s had far reaching and very negative impacts in all aspects of our institutions and our public life,” Gun says. “Because I think people see that…the leaders of both the US and the UK conceivably could be considered war criminals, and yet they are walking free.”
Gabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor for Esquire, where she focuses on politics and culture.