Martin Bright reports: Ten years ago, a young Mandarin specialist at GCHQ, the government’s surveillance centre in Cheltenham, did something extraordinary. Katharine Gun, a shy and studious 28-year-old who spent her days listening in to obscure Chinese intercepts, decided to tell the world about a secret plan by the US government to spy on the United Nations.
She had received an email in her inbox 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 US, 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 US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favourable to US 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 US 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.
For the Observer too, it was a story full of risks. The paper had taken the controversial decision to back intervention in Iraq. Yet here was a story that had the capacity to derail the war altogether. It remains entirely to the credit of Roger Alton, at the time the paper’s editor, that he stuck with the story, despite its potential implications.
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 realised 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.
A decade on, sitting in a cafe in Cheltenham, not far from GCHQ, I asked her if she still stood by what she had done. “Still no regrets,” she said. “But the more I think about what happened, the more angry and frustrated I get about the fact that nobody acted on intelligence. The more we find out that in fact the million-person march was a real cause of worry for Downing Street and for Blair personally, it makes you think we were so close and yet so far.” [Continue reading…]