News Release

The Forgotten “Most Important Leak,” and the Myths it Exposes


National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander Wednesday claimed the reason the NSA does its work is to ensure the security of the American public. “I think what we’re doing to protect American citizens here is the right thing.”

In early 2003, as the U.S. was attempting to get a UN Security Council resolution getting authorization for the impending Iraq war, Katharine Gun leaked an NSA memo (that was under 300 words) which was published by the British newspaper The Observer.

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

The Observer noted in its March 1, 2003 expose “Revealed: U.S. Dirty Tricks to Win Vote on Iraq War” that “The United States is conducting a secret ‘dirty tricks’ campaign against UN Security Council delegations in New York as part of its battle to win votes in favor of war against Iraq.

“Details of the aggressive surveillance operation, which involves interception of the home and office telephones and the emails of UN delegates in New York, are revealed in a document leaked to The Observer.

“The disclosures were made in a memorandum written by a top official at the National Security Agency — the U.S. body which intercepts communications around the world — and circulated to both senior agents in his organization and to a friendly foreign intelligence agency asking for its input. …

“The leaked memorandum makes clear that the target of the heightened surveillance efforts are the delegations from Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Mexico, Guinea and Pakistan at the UN headquarters in New York — the so-called ‘Middle Six’ delegations whose votes are being fought over by the pro-war party, led by the U.S. and Britain, and the party arguing for more time for UN inspections, led by France, China and Russia.

“The memo is directed at senior NSA officials and advises them that the agency is ‘mounting a surge’ aimed at gleaning information not only on how delegations on the Security Council will vote on any second resolution on Iraq, but also ‘policies’, ‘negotiating positions’, ‘alliances’ and ‘dependencies’ — the ‘whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to U.S. goals or to head off surprises’.”

KATHARINE GUN, kthgun at
Available for a limited number of interviews Gun leaked the NSA “dirty tricks” memo in 2003. At that time she was a 28-year-old Mandarin specialist at the UK Government Communications Headquarters, the British equivalent of the NSA. She has said that she leaked the NSA document because “I was particularly concerned about the reason behind the bugging, because it was in order to facilitate an invasion in Iraq. … It was about the potential slaughter of citizens and the disruption and destruction of a country which was already practically on its knees. I felt that the public really needed to know about that.”

MARTIN BRIGHT, martin.bright at
Bright is one of the reporters who broke the story and recently wrote a piece outlining what happened. Katharine Gun “was horrified and leaked the email to The Observer. As a result of the story … she was arrested, lost her job and faced trial under the Official Secrets Act. …”

While the story was largely ignored inside the U.S., Bright notes: “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. …

“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. … a second UN resolution directly to authorize war against Iraq never materialized and air strikes began on March 19, 2003.”

For extensive background on the Katharine Gun case, see: