Iraq leak revisited

Film depicts NSA memo whistleblower

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In the midst of the frenzy over Brexit it’s easy to forget that this isn’t the first collective nervous breakdown to seize the British political classes and public this century.

Seventeen years ago, it was the prospect of war in Iraq that provoked a similar mix of angry demonstrations, parliamentary revolts, passionate argument and dodgy political fixes. With opposition still raging as the deadline for war approached, the US and UK took its case for invasion to the United Nations in a last ditch bid to give the invasion moral and political cover.

That’s when Katharine Gun, a 27-year-old analyst at the UK’s GCHQ electronic intelligence headquarters, was copied in to a memo sent by a senior official at the US National Security Agency. The memo asked GCHQ to eavesdrop on UN delegates from neutral countries in the hope of digging up dirt that could be used to influence their vote.

Gun leaked the memo to the Observer newspaper, where it found its way to investigative reporter Martin Bright and eventually to the front page. It was too late. The UN refused to endorse the war but it went ahead anyway, two weeks after Gun’s revelations were splashed.

“Courageous leak”

What distinguished Gun’s leak from others, in the words of veteran whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, was that it came before the war, when it could have made a difference. Ellsberg described Gun’s actions as “the most important and courageous leak I have ever seen”.

And now it’s a film. Official Secrets stars Keira Knightley as Gun and follows the story from her receipt of the NSA memo to her leaking it and subsequent arrest. The film also deals with the struggle of the Observer journalists involved to get the story out, with Bright played by former Dr Who Matt Smith.

“It was quite something watching yourself being impersonated by a Time Lord,” Bright told Big Issue North. “I don’t think the film could have been better acted all round.

“It really captures the atmosphere of what it was like at the time, whether in the Observer newsroom or the country at large. And a great deal of it is recognisable today – the anxiety over propaganda and fake news, for instance. But above all, it’s Katharine’s story.”

That story didn’t end with the leak. Gun admitted responsibility for the leak to stop a general witchhunt of her colleagues. She was arrested, interrogated and charged with breaches of the Official Secrets act. “I don’t work for the British government,” she told her interrogators. “I work for the British people.”

Her case was dropped just before it came to trial, on unspecified national security grounds.

“Katherine intended to stage a defence that it was necessary for her to act as she did,” said Bright. “That may have forced the prosecution to reveal the Attorney General’s advice over the legality of the war. We don’t know what that advice was. We do know that they dropped the case.

“If the prosecution couldn’t fight a case against a defence of necessity, are they saying she was right?”

Dropping the case left other unfinished business, added Bright.

“Who in the British government signed off on the idea that GCHQ should be spying on the UN? Was it Tony Blair? Was it Jack Straw, the foreign secretary? Or were GCHQ just following orders from the Americans?”

Getting the story out was a complicated process. For one thing, it meant defying a government fully committed to the war. For another, it meant getting the story through the Observer’s political desk, which was equally committed to supporting the government.

“There were certainly tensions in the newsroom,” said Bright. “[Then Observer editor] Roger Alton was very close to the government and very supportive of the war. But Roger is also first and foremost a good hack who can’t resist a great story.”

Reviews of Official Secrets have noted how strongly it conveys the atmosphere of the times, after New Labour’s golden age and before social media, when leaks were physically printed out on paper and put into post boxes rather than pumped out in vast electronic data dumps. What persists from those times, said Bright, is a sense of growing, almost universal distrust.

“I think what we had then was a sense that all our institutions – all the people in power we trust to deal fairly and honestly with us – had failed, and on top of that a sense that the institutions that are supposed to hold them to account had also failed. And I don’t think we’ve ever recovered from that.”

As part of Chester Literature Festival, Martin Bright takes part in a Q&A following a screening of Official Secrets at Chester Storyhouse, 10 Nov

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