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Katharine Gun: the spy who tried to stop the Iraq war

As a young translator at GCHQ she leaked a secret email

14 September 2019

9:00 AM

14 September 2019

9:00 AM

In his memoir of office, Decision Points, George W. Bush writes about going to see Tony Blair in the Azores in the last days before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It was a crisis meeting because they had failed to get a second UN resolution, to give legal cover for the war. This was thought crucial to help Blair and his government survive a no-confidence motion in the House of Commons. After the meeting, the Brits and the Americans shook hands on the tarmac and walked to their planes. Bush remembers his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, saying to him: ‘I hope that’s not the last time we ever see them.’

The person responsible for the jeopardy to face Blair and the coalition in invading Iraq was — as well as Bush and Blair themselves — a young translator at GCHQ, Katharine Gun. She had leaked a secret email revealing what was called at the time an illegal ‘dirty tricks’ campaign to fix the UN vote. Just for a moment, some imagined that this might be enough to stop the Iraq war before it had begun. It wasn’t, of course, but hindsight and history may end up judging Gun’s decisions more kindly than Bush’s or Blair’s. A new film, Official Secrets, tells the story of her actions and subsequent arrest. She is played (with simmering intensity) by Keira Knightley.

Gun did not seek martyrdom and wasn’t searching for evidence to stop the war: the email ‘fell into her lap’. She had never planned a career in ‘intelligence’ and was slightly surprised to find herself working at GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), Britain’s electronic spying agency in Cheltenham. On the phone, she tells me how she came to be there. She was brought up in Taiwan — her parents moved there to work when she was three — and so was fluent in Mandarin. After university and a couple of years’ teaching in Japan, she was back in Britain and looking for a job. She saw a newspaper advert for GCHQ. It seemed like it might be more interesting than some import-export company.

As the build-up to war continued, Gun felt increasing dismay. She couldn’t shake the ‘indelible’ images of the ‘turkey shoot’ of retreating Iraqis on the Highway of Death during the first Gulf War in 1991, the road out of Kuwait strewn with burnt-out vehicles and charred bodies. She wondered if the economic sanctions that were supposed to choke Saddam’s dictatorship were instead, as the critics maintained, causing a ‘genocide’ of Iraqis. These worries crystallised when GCHQ sent her to San Diego for a conference and she was invited on to an American aircraft carrier. It was only September 2002 but the carrier was about to leave for the Gulf. It seemed as if the decision to go to war had already been made, that all the diplomacy then taking place was a charade.

Charade or not, the diplomacy was frantic. In November 2002, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1441, which called on Iraq to get rid of chemical and biological weapons and long-range missiles. In February 2003, Britain and the US began pushing for a new resolution that would give Saddam a month to disarm or face war. Bush had agreed to this to help Blair. The British government’s own lawyers were afraid that without specific UN authorisation, the war might be illegal; British soldiers could even be prosecuted for war crimes. There were a million people in the streets, the Parliamentary Labour Party was in revolt, cabinet ministers were resigning; there might be regime change in Britain before it happened in Iraq.


France and Russia were against a second resolution — and they had a veto in the Security Council. The plan was to persuade them simply to abstain by piling up enough votes from other countries. That meant winning over temporary members of the Council, countries such as Angola, Bulgaria, Chile and Mexico. Enter Katharine Gun. She was sitting at her computer in GCHQ when an email arrived from one Frank Koza, chief of staff at the ‘regional targets’ division of the US National Security Agency. The email wasn’t even meant for her. It was intended for someone else but had been distributed to everyone in her section. She found the contents ‘absolutely stunning’.

The Americans had sent GCHQ a request to spy on the UN ambassadors of the six countries with the important, perhaps swing, votes. Gun believed that this would be illegal, a breach of the Vienna Convention governing diplomatic relations. More than that, Koza wasn’t just asking for information on what these ambassadors and their governments were planning, he seemed to want dirt. Sixteen years on, the words are still seared into memory. Asking for ‘the whole gamut of information from domestic and office communications’ was for her a demand for blackmail material… ‘blackmail to manipulate their vote, to sanction a war. No, you just do not do stuff like that’. She was angered by how ‘nonchalant’ the email was in asking GCHQ to carry out an ‘illegal’ operation — but she didn’t know what to do.

It was a Friday afternoon. She went home and stewed about the email for the whole weekend. Finally, she called someone (she has never named) who had connections to the media, telling them: ‘I have something explosive, I think it has the potential to avert a war with Iraq.’ She went back into work on Monday, printed the email, folded it neatly and put it in her bag. Nerves tingling, she went home. The moment she walked out of GCHQ, she was breaking the Official Secrets Act, perhaps committing an act of treason. A month later, the Observer splashed the story over its front page. ‘Revealed: US dirty tricks to win vote on Iraq war.’ She became ‘the spy who tried to stop a war’.

I was in Baghdad at the time, watching live coverage of the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, arguing for a second resolution at the UN. Powell span a story of mobile biological weapons factories in trucks and intercepted radio messages about chemical weapons already deployed in the field. We had just come from a press conference with the Iraqi information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, better known as ‘Comical Ali’. He said there were no WMD left, just a few old mustard gas shells already given to the UN weapons inspectors. Between the world’s greatest democracy and a murderous dictatorship, it seemed easy to know whom to believe. But the Iraqis were right and the Americans were wrong.

In the film, Knightley as Gun declares: ‘I work for the British people. I do not gather intelligence so that the government can lie to the British people.’A colleague whispers to her: ‘Intelligence may be being manipulated to take this country to war.’ These scenes are set before the invasion, before the shattering truth emerged that Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction and the war had been based on a lie, or more delicately ‘a false prospectus’. Gun says the film-makers were not projecting backwards what we learned later. Even before the invasion, she suspected that the US was ‘cooking up’ intelligence about Iraqi WMD. The UK’s own intelligence, published by Downing Street, produced the Sun headline: ‘Brits 45 mins from doom.’

GCHQ began a leak inquiry, interviewing everyone. Gun couldn’t maintain the pretence that she’d had nothing to do with it and confessed almost immediately. She was arrested and held at the police station in Cheltenham for 24 hours before being bailed. Eight months later, she was charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act. But when she arrived for her trial at the Old Bailey, the prosecution dropped the case with no explanation. There was speculation that this was done to keep the government’s legal advice on the war a secret, though that has been denied.

Gun is in her forties now and living quietly in Turkey. She struggled to find work after being sacked by GCHQ but she has no regrets. She believes that her leak probably finished off the second resolution, turning Chile and Mexico against it. But of course that did not stop the war. Bush never wanted yet another UN resolution and when one failed to arrive, Blair decided it wasn’t needed after all. The invasion proceeded more or less on time with a ‘coalition of the willing’ led by the United States and Britain.

I went with Blair on his last visit to Iraq as prime minister, in 2007. He had ‘no regrets whatsoever’ about removing Saddam. It was too dangerous to make the 20-minute drive from the airport to the British base in Basra. Instead, helicopters skimmed over the rooftops, so as not to allow any insurgents the chance to fire a rocket propelled grenade. As he spoke at the base, a volley of mortars came in. People hid under the tables. All this was a measure of the bloody chaos that was Iraq after the invasion: eventually there were 179 British dead,4,500 Americans, and — maybe — half a million Iraqis, most of them killed in a sectarian civil war. And this was before Isis, which exists, in part, because of events set in train by the war.

Gun believes that because there was no specific UN authority to attack Iraq, ‘in theory’ Bush and Blair could be put on trial for waging an aggressive war (the charge at Nuremberg). ‘That is the only consolation I have… A lot of people would welcome that. It would show that there isn’t a double standard. It would show that when our politicians break the law they are held accountable.’ There is no chance of such a war crimes trial. Gun, the conscience–stricken spy, will almost certainly remain the only British official charged with anything to do with the war in Iraq.

Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent. Official Secrets is released nationwide on 18 October.


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