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'Official Secrets' And The Iraq War


In January 2003, British intelligence analyst Katharine Gun read an email from U.S. officials who were trying to enlist their British counterparts in a public relations campaign to support military action against Saddam Hussein, quote, "by whatever means necessary." She leaked it and ran afoul of the Official Secrets Act.


PETER GUINNESS: (As TinTin) So you work for the British government?

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: (As Katharine Gun) No.

GUINNESS: (As TinTin) No?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) This proposed war is historically unpopular.

KNIGHTLEY: (As Katharine Gun) I work for the British people. I do not gather intelligence so that the government can lie to the British people.

SIMON: Keira Knightley plays Katharine Gun in the new movie "Official Secrets." Matt Smith plays Martin Bright, the reporter for The Observer newspaper. Well, they're not with us. We're joined by the real Katharine Gun and Martin Bright in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.


MARTIN BRIGHT: Thank you for having us.

SIMON: Katharine Gun, what went through your mind that made you decide to do it? You must've known the consequences. You didn't know exactly what they were, but they weren't going to say, good job, Gun.

GUN: Well, it's funny. Maybe it was naive of me, but I was so angered by the email - the tone of it, the sort of blase nature of it and, like, of course you guys are going to help us kind of attitude.

SIMON: You guys meaning you British guys...

GUN: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Are going to help us Americans.

GUN: Right. And the fact that I was very concerned about the imminent invasion of Iraq, which was a country that had been, you know, sanctioned for over 10 years and it had prior to that been bombed into smithereens. I was completely almost, like, blinkered. So I was like a horse with blinkers on, and I felt it had to get out to the public.

SIMON: Now, Martin Bright, you were with The Observer then, and you fought to convince your editors - the newspaper had endorsed the pending action in Iraq. You fought to get this printed.

BRIGHT: I did, yes.

SIMON: Reported. You didn't know Katharine Gun, though, at the time.

BRIGHT: No, it was a - it was an unusual situation knowing that the drums of war were beating. We had to try and triangulate the facts that we knew and find out whether this was really what it said it was. But when they said that someone had been arrested, it was a huge relief to us that, in fact, that proved that our story was true.

SIMON: Katharine Gun, you were charged. The British government did not follow through and prosecute you, as it turns out. But the idea of something like the Official Secrets Act, as I don't have to tell you, is that there are people working undercover whose lives could be jeopardized if somebody leaks anything about a secret operation that they're at, or there are operations underway to protect the country that they don't want to reveal. Here in the U.S., for example, no administration prosecuted more whistleblowers than President Obama's, who won a Nobel Peace Prize.

Have events of these past few years and Julian Assange in any way changed your feelings, less about what you did than the general proposition of whistleblowers having to be careful?

GUN: Yeah, it's a very good question, but the Official Secrets Act has no defense under the law. And, again, in the U.S., the Espionage Act, I believe, also does not have a defense. So these are serious issues when you have increasingly, let's say, authoritarian-minded administrations where you may - you know, you really do need people from within intelligence services to be able to speak about what's really going on behind the scenes. They need protection for speaking the truth.

SIMON: Martin Bright, we're talking about events that were 15 years ago at this point. What thoughts do you have? And I'm thinking now - particularly reports that Julian Assange may not have just been a whistleblower but essentially doing the dirty laundry of the Russian government. Does that give you any pause?

BRIGHT: Oh, it certainly does. I think it's - we need to make the distinction between the whistleblowing of someone like Katharine and what Julian Assange was doing. Katharine leaked one specific document during a conflict, and that's pretty much unheard of. Most leaks happen after the event. What Katharine was doing was letting the British public and, well, and the American public know what was really going on in their name. And I think that's very distinct from the sort of mass dump that Julian Assange was involved in.

Now, I've worked very closely with Julian Assange. I think that much of what he did was extremely important. But it's a very different kind of work to the work that Katharine was engaged in.

SIMON: I mean, in the film, you, Katharine Gun say, I don't work for the British government; I work for the British people.

GUN: And that's actually what GCHQ said themselves, you know, when we started working there is that, you know, the administrations change. You may have a Labour government. You may have a Tory government. Whatever your personal proclivities, you know, you have to put that to one side, and you're working for the British public.

BRIGHT: Yeah. I mean, I think that the significance of this film for our age, because it is a long time ago, it is a historical document, the significance is that we are now operating in a post-truth politics. And if you want to look at the origins of that politics, you need to look at the Iraq War. You need to know that during that period, our institutions on both sides of the Atlantic were undermined by decisions made by our politicians, and that's everything from our judicial system to our military to our political systems and our intelligence operations. So if you want to find out why we are where we are now, you need to look back to 2003.

SIMON: Martin Bright, journalist. Whistleblower Katharine Gun - their story is featured in the new film "Official Secrets." Thank you so much for being with us.

GUN: Thank you for having us.

BRIGHT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EAST WEST QUINTET'S "THE TRIUMPH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.