Official Secrets

Everyone should watch the 2019 film Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Adam Bakri, Indira Varma, and Ralph Fiennes.

It’s the true story of Katharine Gun, who in 2003 was working as a translator at GCHQ in Cheltenham. At that time the American NSA were trying to facilitate President George W. Bush’s determination to invade Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with the aim “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.” As we soon learned, there were no weapons of mass destruction, and far from the Iraqi people being freed, they were subjected to decades of terror for themselves and the whole region, with the rise of so-called ‘Islamic State’ and the bloody wars that then followed to overthrow it.

The NSA emailed GCHQ requesting them to help with surveillance of the delegates from non-permanent member nations of the UN Security Council , with a view to putting pressure on them to support the 2nd resolution that was necessary to legitimate the invasion of Iraq. Katharine Gun was appalled by this, convinced that it was wrong for our security agencies to be used to support the policies of a foreign government, especially when this meant going to war without just cause. (Remember that millions of people all over the world, even in the UK and USA, were demonstrating against Bush and Blair’s policy.)

After great heart-searching, Gun sent a copy of the email to an activist friend, who in turn sent it to the Observer newspaper. The Observer had until this point supported the war, but when they investigated the email and found it genuine, as well as confirming that evidence of Iraqi WMDs was doubtful, they published it.

GCHQ staff were immediately questioned to identify the source of the leak, on the basis that it contravened the mighty Official Secrets Act. Katharine Gun could not bear her colleagues being subjected to this treatment and quickly confessed. She was immediately arrested and questioned. One of the minor heroes of this film is the (unnamed) young woman duty solicitor at this first questioning, who admits she usually only represents petty criminals on drugs and shoplifting charges, yet recommends that Gun should get in touch with the human rights advocacy group Liberty.

In a cruel twist, it was many months before Gun was formally charged — months in which the authorities left her in suspense about what would happen to her. When she was eventually brought to trial, the question was, How should she plead? She was clearly guilty of breaching the Official Secrets Act, yet she opted to plead Not Guilty on the grounds of necessity: that she had acted as she did in order to try to prevent an illegal war.

Here’s a Spoiler Alert, but I can’t resist it and it won’t spoil your enjoyment of the film: When the trial began, the prosecution announced that they would not be bringing any evidence. They gave no reason for this decision, though it’s pretty clear it was because the defence had asked to see the records that the Government had received during the run-up to the war giving legal advice about whether the war was lawful. Since these records would reveal that the Attorney General had originally ruled it unlawful (until he visited Washington DC where he was presumably pressured by the Americans to change his mind), the Government didn’t want this to be revealed. The astonished judge had no alternative but to dismiss the case, and Katharine Gun walked free.

Katharine Gun is a hero whistle-blower, and of course has had to live with and suffer the consequences. Though admired by millions and the recipient of awards, Wikipedia notes

After she was acquitted in 2004, she found it difficult to find a new job. As of 2019 she has lived in Turkey with her husband and daughter for several years.

This is an accurate presentation of a young woman who stood up to protest against one of the most evil decisions taken by British Government during my lifetime. Not only was it illegal and wrong, but it has unleashed violence and suffering on the world which we have yet to see the end of. But it is also an exciting and thought-provoking thriller.

If you haven’t yet watched this (it’s free on Amazon Prime) you should watch it as soon as possible. You really should.