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In 2003, This U.K. Whistleblower Almost Stopped the Iraq Invasion. A New Film Tells Her Story

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In 2003, Katharine Gun, a young specialist working for Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, exposed a highly confidential memo that revealed the United States’ collaboration with Britain in collecting sensitive information on United Nations Security Council members in order to pressure them into supporting the Iraq invasion. Gun leaked the memo to the press, setting off a chain of events that jeopardized her freedom and safety, but also opened the door to putting the entire legality of the Iraq invasion on trial. 

Acclaimed Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg described Gun’s action as “the most important and courageous leak I have ever seen.” Gun’s incredible story is depicted in the new film “Official Secrets,” which premieres in the U.S. August 30. We speak with Katharine Gun; the British journalists who reported on Gun’s revelations in The Observer newspaper, Martin Bright and Ed Vulliamy; and Gavin Hood, director of “Official Secrets.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: As the British government says it’s identified the person who leaked cables that forced out the British ambassador to the United States for calling President Trump “inept,” we look at the real-life political thriller of a British intelligence specialist who risked everything to blow the whistle on U.S. dirty tricks at the United Nations in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion.

In 2003, Katharine Gun was working for Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, known as GCHQ, the intelligence agency similar to the National Security Agency here, when she opened a top-secret NSA memorandum. The highly confidential memo revealed the United States was collaborating with Britain in collecting sensitive information on United Nations Security Council members in order to pressure them into supporting the Iraq invasion. Guided by her conscience, Katharine Gun defied her government and leaked the memo to the press, setting off a chain of events that jeopardized her freedom, her safety, but also opened the door to putting the entire Iraq invasion on trial.

Acclaimed Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg described Katharine Gun’s action as “the most important and courageous leak I have ever seen.” Dan Ellsberg said, “No one else—including myself—has ever done what Katharine Gun did: tell secret truths at personal risk, before an imminent war, in time, possibly, to avert it.”

Well, now Katharine Gun’s story is being told in the new film Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightley. This is the trailer.

TINTIN: [played by Peter Guinness] Katharine Gun? What were you employed to do?

KATHARINE GUN: [played by Keira Knightley] I translated signals intelligence, and I reported anything of interest to my clients.

TINTIN: You’re a spy.

KATHARINE GUN: Did you get this email?

ANDY DUMFRIES: [played by Jack Farthing] The Americans want us to help them get a U.N. resolution for war.

TINTIN: So, you work for the British government.



UNIDENTIFIED: This proposed war is historically unpopular.

KATHARINE GUN: I work for the British people. I do not gather intelligence so that the government can lie to the British people.

JACQUELINE JONES: [played by Katherine Kelly] Intelligence may be being manipulated to take this country to war.

KATHARINE GUN: I could get you a copy.

JASMINE: [played by MyAnna Buring] You’re asking me to collude in a breach of the Official Secrets Act. Some call that treason.

BRITISH INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: Someone has betrayed their government and their country.

BEN EMMERSON: [played by Ralph Fiennes] You might need our help.

KATHARINE GUN: If we do not go public, we would be conceding that no one can ever tell the people when their government is lying.

BEN EMMERSON: Your marriage will be interrogated.

KATHARINE GUN: My husband had absolutely nothing to do with this.

JERRY: [played by Chris Reilly] He’s a Muslim.


BEN EMMERSON: You chose loyalty to your country over loyalty to your government, your marriage and yourself. I think that speaks rather highly of you.

JUDGE HYAM: [played by Kenneth Cranham] Katharine Teresa Gun, you’re charged with an offense of the Official Secrets Act.

BEN EMMERSON: Do you want to risk it all?

JUDGE HYAM: How do you plead?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for the new movie Official Secrets, based on the true-life story of whistleblower Katharine Gun. At the time, her actions received very little attention from journalists in the United States—unless you were watching Democracy Now! In 2004, Democracy Now! interviewed Katharine Gun. I asked her why she decided to leak the memo.

KATHARINE GUN: When I saw this email asking GCHQ’s help to bug the six swing nations to gather a vote for war with Iraq, I was very angry at first and very saddened that it had come to this, and that despite all the talk from both Tony Blair and George Bush about how important it was to get the U.N. on board and to legitimize any kind of aggression, that they were actually going around it in such low-handed manner. So, I decided that the risk to my career was minute compared to the upcoming war in Iraq, and the best thing to do for me was to leak this information to the press, so that everybody else could have the information, and hopefully it could avert this disastrous course of events that have occurred.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Katharine Gun back in 2004. It’s 15 years later.

For more on this incredible story and the real-life thriller that is coming out on August 30th in movie theaters around the country—our guest, Katharine Gun, is played by Keira Knightley—we’re joined by Katharine Gun herself, the whistleblower, former employee of Britain’s global surveillance center, GCHQ, played by actress Keira Knightley, yes.

We’re joined also by Martin Bright, who is the journalist who reported Gun’s revelations in The Observer, as well as Ed Vulliamy. He was the Observer journalist who was working in Washington on this story, as well, with Martin. At the time, the paper, their paper, The Observer, was openly supporting the Iraq invasion, leading up to it. Also with us, the director of Official Secrets, Gavin Hood.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! And it’s so relevant to be talking about this today, as the British government is talking about cracking down on the leaker of the memos of the British ambassador to the U.S. that forced him out. He was forced to resign, because it showed that he called President Trump “inept,” and he said, you know, the singular reason that the Trump administration pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal was because it was signed by President Obama, and other issues. But they not only are saying they are going to crack down hard on the leaker, but they’re also saying they will crack down on the press, any press that reports this in Britain. We thought it was really interesting to talk to you at this time. But, Katharine, how old were you in 2003? Again, this is before the Iraq War. What? January of 2003. Iraq War was in March. Tell us the moment. You’re sitting at the equivalent of the NSA. You worked for GCHQ in Britain. And you were what? A Chinese translator?

KATHARINE GUN: Yeah, Mandarin Chinese, linguist.

AMY GOODMAN: So you had nothing to do with what was going on, covering stuff in Iraq or working on that issue.


AMY GOODMAN: But what did you see in your email?

KATHARINE GUN: Well, it was a memo from a chap called Frank Koza, who worked at the NSA. And yeah, it was just a request from the NSA to—for GCHQ to assist them in bugging the domestic and office communications of the six U.N. Security Council delegates.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait a second. In bugging, in spying on, in eavesdropping, wiretapping, whatever?

KATHARINE GUN: Right. Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And who were these six countries?

KATHARINE GUN: You’re putting me on the spot now.

AMY GOODMAN: I know. Gavin, who worked on the screenplay and is the director.

GAVIN HOOD: Yes. Angola, Cameroon, Bulgaria, Chile—


GAVIN HOOD: —Pakistan and Mexico. Yeah, and those are the—

AMY GOODMAN: So, bugging these six countries.

GAVIN HOOD: Who were the nonpermanent members on the U.N. Security Council at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: And the idea was they would figure out which way they were going to vote, so that they could sway them.

KATHARINE GUN: Well, no, more than that.

GAVIN HOOD: More than that.

KATHARINE GUN: The idea was to gather information that they could use to bribe them or, you know, threaten them into voting yes for the resolution.

GAVIN HOOD: So, yes, tremendous amount of pressure coming down on these countries, because if Blair and Bush had been able to get that U.N. resolution for the invasion, the weapons of mass destruction issue would have been almost pretty much irrelevant, because there’s two legal ways to go to war. It’s you either go to war based on a U.N. resolution—we’re all going together—or you’ve got to prove, you know, a genuine threat to your—you know, it’s a self-defense argument.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Katharine, you read this memo. You’re working on translating Mandarin. But you see this memo that went out to everyone in your area. And what did you think?

KATHARINE GUN: Well, I was just appalled. I mean, my first reaction was shock and anger. And I felt it was explosive information. You know, I thought it was something that people needed to know about, because it was basically exposing what was going on behind the scenes and the fact that, you know, all the flowery words that they used in front of the cameras about doing everything diplomatically was a sham.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Blair was the prime minister of Britain at the time.

KATHARINE GUN: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what did you do?

KATHARINE GUN: Well, I didn’t do anything immediately, but I went home. It was a Friday when I saw the email. And I went home and thought about it over the weekend. And then, on Monday morning, I went back into my workplace, and I just photo—well, I made a copy of it, and I printed it out and folded it up into my handbag and put it for the end of the day to take it out of the office.

AMY GOODMAN: You took it out.

KATHARINE GUN: Yeah, I took it out.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you do with it?

KATHARINE GUN: And then I mailed it to a contact, who then passed it on to a journalist, who then passed it on to Martin Bright.

AMY GOODMAN: Which takes us to Mr. Martin Bright. But we’re going to go to a break, and then we’re going to come back to this discussion. And, guys, you do not want to miss this story and what would then take place. We’re talking about Official Secrets. Yes, it’s a new Hollywood movie that’s coming out, but it is the real-life story of Katharine Gun. How old were you at the time?


AMY GOODMAN: Twenty-seven years old, working for the—well, for British intelligence. And she sees this memo that says that the evidence for going to war would not be based on intelligence of whether there were WMD, but on trying to get something on the U.N. Security Council members, personal or whatever, to get them to vote for the invasion, to back President George W. Bush. This is Democracy Now! Back in 30 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We’re looking at the real-life political thriller of a British intelligence specialist, Katharine Gun, who risked everything to blow the whistle on U.S. dirty tricks at the United Nations in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003. Yes, in 2003, Gun was working for British intelligence—that’s GCHQ, the intelligence agency similar to the NSA, the National Security Agency—when she leaked a memo revealing the United States was collaborating with Britain in collecting sensitive information to hold over U.N. Security Council members to get them to support the Iraq War. Gun’s story being told in Official Secrets. This is a clip.

TINTIN: [played by Peter Guinness] Your supervisor speaks highly of your integrity. She says this breach was a foolish one-off. Was it?

KATHARINE GUN: [played by Keira Knightley] Do you mean have I leaked anything else? No.

TINTIN: Do you intend to?

KATHARINE GUN: No. I’ve always been very proud to work at GCHQ.

TINTIN: Until now.

KATHARINE GUN: Yes, until now.

TINTIN: What were you employed to do?

KATHARINE GUN: I can’t be specific.

TINTIN: Be general then.

KATHARINE GUN: I translated signals intelligence, and I reported anything I thought might be of interest to my clients.

TINTIN: Your clients?

KATHARINE GUN: The Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defense.

TINTIN: So, you work for the British government.

KATHARINE GUN: No, not really.


KATHARINE GUN: Governments change. I work for the British people. I gather intelligence so that the government can protect the British people. I do not gather intelligence so that the government can lie to the British people.

TINTIN: With respect, Mrs. Gun, you’re a spy.


TINTIN: You gather information from people’s phones and computers, and you feed that to your clients.


TINTIN: You eavesdrop on private conversations.


TINTIN: And now you’re upset at being asked to do that to members of the Security Council.

KATHARINE GUN: Detective, I don’t object to being asked to collect information that could help prevent a terror attack. What I object to is being asked to gather intelligence to help fix a vote at the U.N. and deceive the world into going to war.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a clip from Official Secrets. The film is coming out August 30th in theaters around the country. That’s Keira Knightley playing Katharine Gun, who’s in our studio now, the whistleblower, former British spy, worked for British intelligence, explaining why she leaked this memo, which would get to the press, which would get to The Observer, which brings us to our next two guests, Martin Bright and as well as Ed Vulliamy. Martin, talk about how you got this memo. You actually, at that point, had never met Katharine Gun.

MARTIN BRIGHT: No, it was a very unusual situation. We were handed a simple sheet of A4 paper that had a series of words typed on it. And whereas usually with a whistleblower, you would work very closely with them directly, Katharine didn’t come to me. She had passed the memo to one of her contacts. That contact had connections with the antiwar movement. Someone within the antiwar movement, who was a former journalist, took the memo initially to another newspaper. And then, finally, it came to me.

And on the face of it, it looked like an extraordinary story. You know, it’s not every day you get a top-secret memo, and not just a top-secret memo from GCHQ, but a top-secret memo from the NSA sent to GCHQ. It looked like a very exciting story. But the difficulty was that it was just words typed on a piece of paper. We had no idea where it had come from. And that’s really where the story started for Ed and myself on The Observer, was process of verification.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you go to your top editors, and you say, “I’ve got this piece of paper.” In fact, Katharine had ripped off the top. Is that right, Katharine?

MARTIN BRIGHT: The top had been ripped off of the memo. And so, all the header information that you would usually have was not there. So, when I met Yvonne Ridley, who is the former journalist who handed me the document, it was immensely infuriating. And I said, you know, “So, what is this? I mean, what are you doing here? This is of no use to me at all.” And she turned the piece of paper over, and on the back someone had written the header information. So we at least had—we at least had a lead.

AMY GOODMAN: So it was sort of chicken scratch on the back.


AMY GOODMAN: That was Katharine—

KATHARINE GUN: It wasn’t me, actually.

AMY GOODMAN: It wasn’t. It wasn’t.

MARTIN BRIGHT: We have to—we have to protect the innocent in the [inaudible].

GAVIN HOOD: We have to protect the innocent and source, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So, but talk about this, your argument to the editors. You think this is real, but you do have to track it down. And explain what the header said, who you had to verify this with.

MARTIN BRIGHT: So, the header information included the name Frank Koza, who was the NSA’s head of regional targets at the time. And so we had at least that. We had at least a name. And also, the memo itself contained language that was consistent with intelligence service language, so we had experts look at that, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you call Ed, and you say, “Can you track down this guy?” Among many other things.

MARTIN BRIGHT: Yeah, so, initially, we were quite nervous. I was quite nervous. I talked to a couple of colleagues about it, about even taking it to the editor, because you don’t want to take a half-baked story to your editor, particularly at the time of intense prewar preparation. The drums of war are rolling at that period. But we were—within The Observer

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, that’s the time you should run the fastest to the editor, but—

MARTIN BRIGHT: Well, but only with a story that you know is true. And so, we knew that time was short. And at the time, The Observer newsroom was—and The Observer itself was split, because some people supported the war, some people didn’t. But there were a group of journalists within the newsroom who trusted each other, had worked together previously.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the paper had come out supporting the war. That’s the critical point.

MARTIN BRIGHT: The paper—the editorial line was supporting the war, but obviously there were those of us within the paper who didn’t. And it was a very collaborative—it was a very collaborative place. And I knew that I needed help. And I knew that Ed was an extremely experienced journalist. So, I called him and asked him if he could do anything to help track down Frank Koza, or the reality or otherwise of this individual.

AMY GOODMAN: The guy at the NSA. And, Ed, you’re played by Rhys Ifans brilliantly in this movie, Official Secrets. But, so you have to track down Frank Koza. What do you do?

ED VULLIAMY: Well, oh, indeed, brilliantly played his subject. These actors are so clever, Amy. It’s like he’s more me than I am. And likewise the other performances, extraordinary in this film.

Yes, I mean, these were, as Martin has suggested, divisive, divided, bitter, difficult times. Sound familiar? Plus ça change… The war—I mean, our obligation is not whether we support or are against the war. Our obligation is to the truth. And truth was having a hard time at The Observer at that point.

There’s a back story. This is Katharine’s story we’re talking about, but there is a back story in the film, which plays its part, which is mine, and I’ll be quick on this. I had found a source called Mel Goodman, namesake of yours, who was the ex-head of the Soviet desk at the CIA, had kept his clearance. Wise man. And he had told me over two meetings, A, we know that Saddam Hussein has no weapons of mass destruction. The CIA knows it. Everybody knows it. Two, there is a shadow intelligence operation going on through the Pentagon, all your favorite names on this program—Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle. Your viewers will recall them; I hope not, for their sake, but some of them will. They’re basically cooking it. They’re cooking this up. It’s not true.

I filed that story seven times to The Observer. I could not get it in the paper. I didn’t know why, but I was going nuts. And Rhys Ifans plays the outraged insanity rather well, to my embarrassment, but he does a good job. And so, I was going crazy. It later emerged that the newspaper was collaborating very, very closely with Tony Blair and his sort of enforcers to keep this kind of thing out of the paper. So, where I had failed with my whistleblower, Mr. Goodman, Martin, with brave and extraordinary Katharine Gun, succeeded.

But this needed finding Koza. Now, I asked around. I asked Mr. Goodman, I asked others, “Can you help me find this guy?” Because you had to get an extension number. They won’t just put you through to a man who doesn’t exist in a place that doesn’t exist.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Martin, you tried that. You tried to call.

MARTIN BRIGHT: Well, I did. I did, rather naively, try calling the press office and getting an interview.

AMY GOODMAN: Press office at?

MARTIN BRIGHT: At the NSA, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You said, “May I please speak to Mr. Koza?”

MARTIN BRIGHT: “May I please speak to Mr. Koza?” And they said, “We don’t give out names.” And he says, “Excuse me, Mr. Bright.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, you find—

ED VULLIAMY: Yeah, I came upon an extension number. And that’s where you get through. I tried, too, without success.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you say?

ED VULLIAMY: Well, I put on an American accent, and I said, “Can I have Mr. Koza’s office, please? Could you put me through?” “Who’s talking, sir?” “I can’t say. Just put me through.” And, sure enough, “Frank Koza.” That was a good brain moment. I was like, “Mmm. Mr. Koza?” “Yeah, who’s that? Who’s that?” I said, “I’m ringing about the GCHQ memo that you sent.” Click.


ED VULLIAMY: But at least he exists.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’ve got it proved. Martin Bright, you’re able to move forward with this story.

ED VULLIAMY: Yeah, exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: And it is explosive. What was the headline?

MARTIN BRIGHT: It was ”NSA 'dirty tricks' at the U.N.” Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what happened then. I mean, you were the man of the hour. You walk in. People are cheering you. You’ve got CNN, you’ve got BBC, you’ve got everyone on the line. They want to interview Martin Bright, because you’ve got the story of this memo. You didn’t know who Katharine Gun was, who had leaked it, but you had the story of the memo that was going to get the goods on these U.N. Security Council members, which would force them to vote for the invasion of Iraq.


AMY GOODMAN: Everyone’s booking you.


AMY GOODMAN: And then everyone—FOX, CNN—and then they all cancel.

MARTIN BRIGHT: Yes. It was an extraordinary moment. I mean, it’s every journalist’s dream to have these, you know, front-page splash stories that get followed up around the world. It was particularly explosive in Chile, which has obviously been used to American intelligence—

AMY GOODMAN: Because Chile was one of the six.

MARTIN BRIGHT: Was one of the six nations. We were getting calls from all over the world. And it was—

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve got to make this fast; we have three minutes.

MARTIN BRIGHT: It was one of those huge, huge, huge stories. And then, one by one, the American networks pulled out. We still don’t know, to this day, why they did that. Some of it was to do with complications over an unfortunate spell check within the memo.

AMY GOODMAN: Wll, this is the key, absolutely astounding moment.


AMY GOODMAN: You print the memo.

MARTIN BRIGHT: In its entirety, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: But the spelling of it is British spelling.

MARTIN BRIGHT: Yes. So, we had a terrible moment where we had seen organizations follow the story up. The Drudge Report, famous right-wing website, had followed the story up. And then they changed their headline, from “Condi Rice orders operation at the NSA and GCHQ” to “British newspaper prints fake memo.”

AMY GOODMAN: Right, because it said like F-A-V-O-U-R, instead of V-O-R.

MARTIN BRIGHT: Yeah, these details on—

AMY GOODMAN: And so that proves it’s a fake memo, they think. But it’s just because the copy editor ran it through spell check.

MARTIN BRIGHT: It was cock-up rather than conspiracy. And it was a terrible moment when I had to look in my drawer and find it.

AMY GOODMAN: But, Katharine Gun, you’re home. You see this headline splashed across the front page. And your memo, that you had leaked, was right front and center.


AMY GOODMAN: You promptly threw up?

KATHARINE GUN: Well, no, I was in a shock when I saw it. But I felt like straightaway it was emblazoned across my forehead: “It’s me! You know, look at me. Target. Right here.” And I was petrified. I was trembling like a leaf. And I pretty much ran home. And my husband Yasar was still in bed. And I just—you know, I just collapsed. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what—I mean, you risked everything. In fact, your husband—would they attempt to deport him?

KATHARINE GUN: Well, it’s just serendipitous, fortuitous, whatever it is, but his asylum case was coming to an end at the same time that my case began. So, as soon as I was, you know—well, we’ll get to this, I suppose, but I was arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have 30 seconds.

KATHARINE GUN: I was arrested. And the whole process, I think, was just a parallel process that didn’t have a—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what’s astounding is—


AMY GOODMAN: —GCHQ leads an investigation. They question you. But then you turn yourself in. And tell the final results of what happened. When you go to court, you face years in prison. And what happened?

KATHARINE GUN: Well, they dropped the charges against me.

AMY GOODMAN: But this was how long after you were picked up?

KATHARINE GUN: It was a full nine to 10 months after the event.

AMY GOODMAN: And the U.S. went to war—


AMY GOODMAN: —with Iraq.


AMY GOODMAN: This is a remarkable story. We’re going to do Part 2, and we’re going to post it online at democracynow.org, to talk about these—the courage Katharine Gun had in revealing this information, and then what this means for whistleblowers today and for U.S.-British policy today. That does it for our show. Katharine Gun, Martin Bright, Ed Vulliamy and Gavin Hood. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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