The spy who tried to stop a war - GulfToday

The spy who tried to stop a war

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Keira Knightley

Award-winning Keira Knightley is portraying Gun in a film about her attempt to foil the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

In early 2003, Katherine Gun, an unknown Mandarin Chinese translator with British intelligence, tried to foil the US-UK conspiracy to wage their disastrous war on Iraq. Last week, a film, entitled Official Secrets, starring award-winning Keira Knightley, was released to the global public.

On Jan.31, 2003, Gun read an e-mail from Frank Koza of the US National Security Agency, asking dozens of British intelligence agents to provide information or spy on officials from six non-permanent United Nations (UN) Security Council members with the aim of putting pressure on their countries to vote in favour of a second resolution that would grant formal legality to the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. This demand was put forward by British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a condition for taking his country into a new Iraq war.

The first resolution, adopted in November 2002, called for Iraq to comply with disarmament resolutions which, in fact, Baghdad had done after the 1991 US war. The targeted countries were Pakistan, Angola, Bulgaria, China, Cameroon and Guinea. The plot violated the Vienna Convention regulating the conduct of diplomacy. The US and UK failed to get the needed votes and went to war without a resolution. Ex post facto, in September 2004, then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan declared the Iraq war was illegal since the invasion and occupation were not sanctioned by the Security Council or conducted in accordance with the UN Charter. Annan’s words were meaningless by that time. If he had spoken well ahead of the war, Annan might have forced the warmongers to reconsider.

In an interview with the Spectator’s Paul Wood, Gun said she was concerned by the build up to the war. She felt “dismay. She couldn’t shake the ‘indelible’ images of the ‘turkey shoot’ of retreating Iraqis on the Highway of Death during the first (US war on Iraq) 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 (the Iraqi government) were instead, as the critics maintained, causing a ‘genocide’ of Iraqis.” An invitation to visit a US aircraft carrier in San Diego, California, which was about to deploy to the Gulf in September 2002, made her think that the “diplomacy then taking place was a charade” and war a certainty.

A shocked Gun took a copy of the e-mail home to think about what to do with it and, after consideration, passed it to a friend with media connections. The press, loyal to its political masters, sat on the text until March 2, when the text appeared on the front page of the Observer — despite its support for the war. If the e-mail had been published earlier rather than just 17 days before the invasion, the war might, just might, have been stopped.

Her receipt of the secret e-mail coincided with efforts to avert war in Baghdad and mass protests against the war in world capitals. UN experts were in the Iraqi capital scrambling to put together a report denying that Iraq had banned weapons. Foreign dignitaries hurried to Baghdad with intention of averting war. Among them was Irish lawmaker and now President Michael D Higgins who met President Saddam Hussein’s deputy Tareq Aziz. They discussed mediation by world figures like Nelson Mandela which did not come about. (I attended this meeting as the correspondent of The Irish Times.)

On Feb.15 and 16, well before the publication of the e-mail, there were coordinated anti-war demonstrations in more than 600 cities in 60 countries around the world. It is estimated that between eight and 11 million people took part. The protest in Rome, the largest, drew three million; the demonstration in Madrid, 1.5 million. The rally in London, attended by up to one million including Gun, was the largest in the city’s history. Demonstrations in the US were in the tens and hundreds of thousands.

Promulgation of the e-mail angered the countries whose diplomats were to be spied upon and blackmailed. Their governments and others refused to vote for a resolution granting legitimacy to a war fought on the basis of the blatant lie that Iraq possessed prohibited weapons of mass destruction.

After initially denying she had leaked the e-mail during interrogation by senior officers, Gun admitted to her superiors that she had passed on the text. She was arrested, spent a night in police cells and, eight months later, was charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act. In response, prominent political and Hollywood figures defended Gun. US activist actor Sean Penn called her a “hero of the human spirit.” Her story played for a short time in the British press but was ignored in the US media which had been marching to the tune of Washington’s war drums.

In court she pleaded “not guilty,” arguing that she had acted to halt a war she believed to be illegal. The case was dropped. She lost her job and prospects for further employment and risked her freedom to take a stand on a war now known to have been fought on the basis of fraud. Yet her voice was not stilled. Two years later she called on potential leakers to publicise plans for war on Iran. She then faded from public view.

Gun was born and raised by British parents in Taiwan where she learned spoken Chinese. She specialised in Mandarin and Japanese at Durham University and struggled to find work until she saw an ad placed by British intelligence. She currently lives in Turkey with her Kurdish husband and teenage daughter. Her quiet, financially insecure life has been disrupted by the film directed by South African-born Gavin Hood and a book, published in 2008, entitled, The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War, by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell.

The film is fast-paced and as true to what happened as Hood and his team could manage. Katherine Gun is a reserved, sober person of strong moral fibre rather than a cartoon 007 James Bond. The general release of Official Secrets coincides with Permanent Record, a book by US whistleblower Edward Snowden who in 2013 revealed the secrets of US and UK spy agencies, particularly their collection of private citizens’ personal data. Branded a “traitor” by the paranoid US, Snowden, ironically, found asylum in Russia. He too is a real-life character portrayed in the 2016 film, Snowden, by Oliver Stone.


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