News Release

10 Years Ago: “The Most Important Leak” Aimed at Stopping the Iraq War


In 2003, Katharine Gun was a 28-year-old Mandarin specialist at the UK Government Communications Headquarters, the equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency. She leaked what Daniel Ellsberg, who himself leaked the Pentagon Papers, has called “the most important and courageous leak I have ever seen. … 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.”

MARCIA MITCHELL, [email]
Mitchell is co-author of The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion. She said today: “This is a story that simply will not go away. The British government has launched a new investigation into events leading up to the Iraq invasion, with Katharine Gun testifying before Parliament. There is no question that interest remains strong abroad. The book telling her story was named to a ‘best book list’ in the UK, and it was just optioned for film. Since her release in 2004, Katharine has given birth to a daughter, taught Chinese in the UK, and has spent part of her life living in Turkey with her husband, whom she married shortly before her 2003 arrest.”

MARTIN BRIGHT, [email] Bright is one of the reporters who broke the story of the leak 10 years ago. He just wrote “Katharine Gun: Ten years on what happened to the woman who revealed dirty tricks on the UN Iraq war vote?” He writes that Gun “had received an email … asking her and her colleagues to help in a vast intelligence ‘surge’ designed to secure a UN resolution to send troops into Iraq. She was horrified and leaked the email to the Observer. As a result of the story the paper published 10 years ago this weekend, she was arrested, lost her job and faced trial under the Official Secrets Act.

“The memo from Frank Koza, chief of staff at the ‘regional targets’ section of the National Security Agency, GCHQ’s sister organisation in the U.S., remains shocking in its implications for British sovereignty. Koza was in effect issuing a direct order to the employees of a UK security agency to gather ‘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.’ This included a particular focus on the ‘swing nations’ on the security council, Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria and Guinea, ‘as well as extra focus on Pakistan UN matters.’

“The story went around the world and the leak electrified the international debate during the weeks of diplomatic deadlock. Most directly, it bolstered opposition to the U.S. position from Chilean and Mexican diplomats weary of American ‘dirty tricks.’ The same countries demanded immediate answers from the British government about its involvement in the spying. With the operation blown, the chances of George W. Bush and Tony Blair getting the consensus for a direct UN mandate for war were now near zero. …

“Gun had hoped the leak would prick the conscience of the British public, large sections of which were already taking to the streets in opposition to the war. Surely, she thought, when people realized that the UK was being asked to collaborate in an operation to find out personal information that could be used to blackmail UN delegates, they would be outraged and the UK government would halt its slide into war. She failed. …

“Now there is the possibility that Gun’s singular life will be made into a movie. … As for her own story, she recognizes that 10 years on it scarcely registers with the public. I sensed a slight flash of anger as she said: ‘It’s not even a footnote in the history of Iraq.’ But she said she would still be prepared to give evidence to the [ongoing] Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. …

“Although the story made headlines around the world at the time of the leak and later at the time of her trial, which collapsed after the prosecution withdrew its evidence, it remains largely missing from the official narratives of the build-up to the Iraq war. …

“In leaking it to the Observer, she was also doing something unprecedented in the history of espionage. Not only was the cable the most sensitive ever to be disclosed on either side of the Atlantic, it was also unique in its timing. Most whistleblowers leak after the event to expose perceived wrongdoing. Gun disclosed details of the spying operation as it was happening to stop something she viewed as terrible happening in the future. …

“As it was, a second UN resolution directly to authorize war against Iraq never materialized and air strikes began on March 19, 2003. Katharine Gun did not stop the war, but was it all entirely in vain? It is probably still too early to tell.”

See: Background on the Katharine Gun case.