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2003-12-16

British Intelligence Leaker Facing Prison Time For Exposing U.S.-UN Surveillance Scandal

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Former British intelligence employee Katharine Gun is facing up to two years in prison for violating the Official Secrets Act when she disclosed a top-secret NSA memo in March outlining a U.S. surveillance operation directed at UN Security Council members ahead of the vote on Iraq.

In the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, the British newspaper The Observer exposed a highly secret and aggressive surveillance operation directed at United Nations Security Council members by the U.S. ahead of the vote on Iraq.

The Observer obtained a top-secret NSA memorandum that outlined a surveillance operation involves intercepting home and office telephone calls and emails of UN delegates focusing "the whole gamut of information that could give U.S. policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to U.S. goals or to head off surprises."

The target of the surveillance were the so-called 'Middle Six' delegations, including Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Mexico, Guinea and Pakistan, who could swing a Security Council vote on Iraq.

In a story that has received almost no media coverage in the U.S., the former British intelligence employee who leaked the memo, Katharine Gun, is now facing up to two years in prison for violating the Official Secrets Act.

We speak with Norman Solomon of the Institute for Public Accuracy about the case of Katharine Gun. His article "For Telling the Truth" published in the Baltimore Sun is one of the few U.S. accounts of the story.

  • Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy in San Francisco. He is co-author of Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You (Context Books, 2003).
  • Tony Benn, Former British Labor minister. He joins us on the phone from London.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Tony Benn, former Labour parliamentarian for more than half a century in Britain. He is speaking to us from London, just returned from Cairo. Before we go back to him, we thought we would go to some tape from last February. This was, I believe, the last recorded interview of Saddam Hussein, and it was Tony Benn in Iraq interviewing Saddam Hussein. Let’s take a listen.

TONY BENN: Mr. President, may I ask you some questions? The first question is does Iraq possess weapons of mass destruction?

SADDAM HUSSEIN: Most of the Iraqi officials have been in power for over 34 years and have experience of dealing with the outside world. Every fair-minded person knows that when an Iraqi official says something, they are trustworthy. A few minutes ago, when you asked me if I wanted to look at the questions beforehand, I told you I didn’t feel any need, so that we don’t waste time. And I gave you the freedom to ask me any question directly so that my reply would be direct. This is an opportunity to reach the British people, and the forces of peace in the world. There is only one truth, and therefore, I will tell you as I have said on many occasions before, that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction whatsoever. We challenge anyone who claims that we have, to bring forward any evidence and present it for public opinion.

TONY BENN: I have another question which has been raised —

AMY GOODMAN: That’s just an excerpt of the extended interview that Tony Benn did with Saddam Hussein. That ran in many parts of the world, hardly here in the United States, except on Pacifica radio. But Tony Benn, do you remember that moment, interesting to hear the question about weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein denying it. Reports are that when he was asked again, after he was captured, he said that this is what he had said all along.

TONY BENN: Well, I — I do believe what he said. I asked him a number of questions. That was the first. The second was links with al Qaeda, which he denied, and that is certainly true. Anyone in America who thinks that he had anything to do with September 11 is totally misinformed. The question of the weapons of mass destruction I also discussed with General Sayiddi, a distinguished Iraqi general who worked with blitz. He told me that they had them in the 1990’s, the early 90’s, and ended them. Mr. Blair made the big point of the justification for the war that these weapons could be used in four to five minutes and what is it over 300 days or 200 days later? None of them have been found. If it is true that Saddam, when captured, repeated that, it does undermine the case that was used for attacking Iraq; and if Saddam is gone and there are no weapons, why are the United States and Britain still there? Very big questions are raised by the capture of Saddam and any interrogation of him in confirming what he told me personally in Baghdad in February.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Benn, you’re in the parliament for more than 50 years in Britain. Can you reflect on the place we are in history right now?

TONY BENN: Well, strangely, when I was in Cairo on Saturday, I gave the key note address at this conference and I was introduced by a man who said that I spoke with Tony Benn in Trafalgar Square in London in 1956 at the trial of the Suez War. I remembered him, of course. You see, the early part of my life was to see the end of European empires, the French empire in Algeria and Vietnam, the Portuguese empire in Goa, the British empire in India and Africa. Now, I find imperialism is returning and is being treated as a serious necessary policy, not just by President Bush, who is the new emperor, you might think argued for it, but by the British as well. And so, you then say, well, now what are the elements that build up empire? Well, military strength, and the United States has got, I think, 742 bases in 142 countries in the world, and a bigger defense budget than the rest of the world put together. But also it is the acceptance by people who are occupied or nominated, and I think that acceptance has now — well, is now under threat. I think a lot of people in the Middle East and all over the world just don’t accept it. Of course, if imperialism meets resistance, then it creates resistance in the home country just as in the United States now there are people whose families are the soldiers who want them home. They see the impact of it on the American economy. They see the huge profits made by Halliburton and the oil companies and arms manufacturers. Therefore, I can see looking at it now with a long historical perspective, I can see the ingredients of the decline of American imperialism, even though the United States is more powerful than any country in the whole history of the world has ever been. The elements are there, and if, of course, next year when the Presidential election comes, there was a change of administration in the White House, it would mark a very, very significant historical development that would help the world to find peace in the longer run.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Benn, I was wondering if you could stay on the line with us.

TONY BENN: Of course.

AMY GOODMAN: Because we want to take a look at someone who few Americans will recognize her name, Katherine Gun. Looking at a piece by Norman Solomon, who has also joined us on the line, who is co-author of the book, Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You, and is head of the Institute for Public Accuracy. Norman reminds us, few Americans have heard of Katherine Gun, the former British intelligence employee facing charges that she violated the Official Secrets Act. So far, the American press has ignored her, but the case raises profound questions about democracy and the public’s right to know on both sides of the Atlantic. Norman Solomon, welcome to Democracy Now!, joining long-time — well, former Labour parliamentarian, Tony Benn, as you lay out for us Katherine Gun’s case.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Yes, my article, unfortunately, when it appeared this Sunday in the Baltimore Sun, was the first substantial mention of this heroic woman in the entire U.S. press. Listeners to Democracy Now! will recall because this is one of the few programs to explore it. In March of this year, the Observer newspaper in London exposed a very secret memo that had just been leaked by someone, a memo from a top U.S. national security agency official. It was an explosive memo in content. People will remember at that time the U.S. and Britain were pushing very hard to get through the U.N. Security Council a resolution for war. They never got that resolution, but what the U.S. did do with apparent collusion from the Blair government was to wiretap and surveillance a half dozen key delegations at the U.N. to try to turn the screws on them, wiretapping their home office phones, as well as emails. We’re talking about the governments, the delegations of Mexico, Chile, Angola, Cameroon, Guinea and also Pakistan. What was the purpose? They were trying to get this war resolution through the U.N., and what it turns out Katherine Gun did as an official at a secret handling British agency, what she did was she provided to this news outlet, The Observer, a memo that outlined from the U.S. National Security Agency this wiretap program in New York in diplomatic circles, delegates from several continents.

AMY GOODMAN: And, now can you talk about what has happened?

NORMAN SOLOMON: Well, now the Blair government, no doubt with support from the Bush administration, is saying to Katherine Gun, it is payback time. You were a major factor through your actions in making it possible for people to prevent a war resolution going through the U.N. Security Council. And so what happens was in March, she was quickly arrested. In June she formally lost her job at the government communications’ headquarters in Britain and last month, four weeks ago, her name became public knowledge in the British press because at that point, she was charged with violation of the Official Secrets Act. She is facing two years in prison. This is a 29-year-old woman who could have simply stood by and watched her country and the United States go to war, but it was a matter of conscience. It was a matter of democracy. It was a matter of trying to work with others to stop this war. And what I think we need to understand now, as Americans, as people, is that we had every right to know our government was involved in these dirty tricks at the U.N. We are in the debt of this woman who now is at great risk of going to prison, and it’s absolutely — it is absolutely essential that we take action to support her.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Benn.

TONY BENN: Well, I — absolutely agree with that analysis. I mean, the things that are done by governments under cover throw a completely new light or different light, I should say, on what’s going on above, and when somebody on the basis of moral principle puts their conscience before official secrets, and they do society a — well, they perform an essential function. And I think it does raise the question as to whether if that woman is imprisoned, it doesn’t throw doubt on the whole idea of the law being concerned with justice. It’s rather like the situation of the moment. If you ask anyone in the world about American justice, they don’t think of the supreme court, in all of its majesty, they think of Guantanamo Bay. You know, we hold these truths to be self-evident and so on, which is the American Constitution. People say, well, that’s of course been abandoned a long time ago. We have had cases in Britain, and I know that you have had in the United States, of principle people who brought out the truth, and they should be accepted as having acted in accordance with their conscience. Conscience must be above the law otherwise you do whatever you are told by anyone who happens to be in power.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Yes. I think it’s important to recognize, for Americans to realize, Katherine Gun is the equivalent, really, of Daniel Elsburg who released the Pentagon papers.

TONY BENN: Yes.

NORMAN SOLOMON: I talked to Mr. Elsburg, who told me that, in many respects, her action was more timely and more critical because she released this crucial information before the war began and the potential was there to actually prevent those bombs and missiles from falling. I wanted to ask Democracy Now! listeners to write down this information. You can take action to support Katherine Gun and what she represents. Inform yourself by reading the article in the Baltimore Sun that I wrote. It’s posted on the website accuracy.org. Just go to accuracy.org. click on articles, you can read it, then take action. Call media outlets around the country. Demand they at last cover this story. Ask that members of congress take appropriate action and also it’s crucial, please send a letter of support for Katherine Gun. It’s easy to do. Go to your email and send it to me. I will forward it on. Just send it to care of Norman at accuracy.org. That’s just Norman at accuracy.org.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both very much for joining us. We have been speaking with Norman Solomon, who has done one of the rare pieces in this country on Katherine Gun, the former British intelligence employee facing charges that she violated the official secrets act. And finally, Tony Benn, in Britain, among those in the anti-war movement, which is a very significant movement in Britain, has Katherine Gun become a major focus, or is there as little to understand — do the people know as little about her there like they do here?

TONY BENN: Not as much as should be known because of the reasons that you have heard. You see secrecy is two levels. There’s government secrecy that’s supposed to shut you out. Even if it comes out, there’s media censorship, self-censorship, which they don’t publicize. I don’t know how many people are aware of the work that she did or the threat that faces her. We have had equivalents of Daniel Elsburg here and some of them have been imprisoned and punished. That is a continual threat that hangs over people, but I do think that the media share responsibility because if they don’t publish what is known illegally, become known if you know what I mean, if they don’t publish what is released or leaked then they keep everybody in the dark. I think this appeal to newspapers to give better coverage is of great importance.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. That was Tony Benn, former long time British parliamentarian in Britain, just back from Egypt and Norman Solomon of the Institute for Public Accuracy.

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