"I never set out to be a whistleblower": Katharine Gun tells the true story of "Official Secrets"

Salon talks to former British intelligence whistleblower Katharine Gun, played by Keira Knightley in the new film

Published August 24, 2019 1:00PM (EDT)

Keira Knightley as Katharine Gun in "Official Secrets." (Courtesy of IFC Films)
Keira Knightley as Katharine Gun in "Official Secrets." (Courtesy of IFC Films)

As Katharine Gun told me during our "Salon Talks" conversation, being played by Keira Knightley in a movie was approximately the last thing she ever thought might happen to her. It's accurate enough to describe Gun as a former British intelligence officer, but that sounds way more glamorous than her actual work.

A pleasant, highly intelligent woman with a distracted manner and way too much modesty — she told me twice that she thought Edward Snowden was much smarter than she was, which could be disputed — Gun essentially is what she looks like, that being a middle-aged academic. She was a Mandarin-language scholar who landed for a while at GCHQ, the British government's cognate to the NSA, where she presumably tracked "signals intelligence" going back and forth between the U.K. and China. (She didn't actually tell me that, because she can say very little about the nature of her work, which is normal for former spooks.)

A comparison to Snowden is relevant because Katharine Gun is also a famous national-security whistleblower, although the secrets she revealed had nothing to do with her work at GCHQ. We'll let Gun herself tell you the story of how she accidentally learned about a nefarious 2003 blackmail scheme, through which the U.S. under George W. Bush and the U.K. under Tony Blair hoped to strong-arm the UN Security Council into authorizing the invasion of Iraq.

Gun initially hoped she might be able to stop that war and expose the lapdog subservience of Blair's government to American power. I'm not giving away any spoilers by telling you that things didn't quite work out that way. She was in New York on a sweltering summer afternoon — with her teenage daughter in tow — to talk about director Gavin Hood's mildly fictionalized espionage thriller "Official Secrets," and all the lessons we haven't learned about what governments don't want us to know.

Our full conversation is embedded below. The transcript that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Joining me today is former British intelligence officer Katharine Gun, who is the central subject of the new film “Official Secrets.” It’s not a documentary — it’s about what you actually did and what happened to you. Tell us what you can about your intelligence work.

Yes. I worked for GCHQ, which stands for Government Communications Headquarters, and is the equivalent of the NSA here in the U.S. I was a Mandarin-language linguist and translator.

GCHQ is a very familiar acronym to the British public — as you say, similar to the NSA. I know there are certain specifics about your work you can't discuss, but tell us what GCHQ does. Like the NSA, it selectively intercepts communications that occur between Britain and other places. Is that roughly correct?

Right. It’s signals intelligence. So it gathers any form of communication that is not human intelligence, which is the province of, you know, the CIA or, in Britain, MI6.

So your work was totally invisible to the general public — until 2003, just before the Iraq war. That was when you came across some unexpected information about how the United States and Britain were preparing to go to war. 

Right. This was literally right before Colin Powell's speech at the UN [alleging that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction]. I got an email on the 31st of January, it was a Friday. The email was basically forwarded down to a whole group of analysts, and that was approximately 100 people or so, and I happened to be one of them. So it was an email from a guy called Frank Koza, he was the head of regional targets at NSA. It was basically a request from the NSA to GCHQ, it just said, "We want all the information you can gather on the personal or the domestic or office communications of the six delegates that were sitting on the UN Security Council, the swing nations."

These were the nations that move around, the non-permanent members of the UN Security Council. They had the balance of the vote, at this moment when the U.S. and the U.K. wanted this UN resolution which would authorize an invasion of Iraq. So the request was that before this resolution took place, they wanted to have information on these diplomats so that they could twist their arms.

They wanted any information on these diplomats, and it said specifically, this is a quote, “the whole gamut of information that would give U.S. policymakers an edge in achieving goals favorable to the U.S." So I was just stunned by this, you know? I was appalled and I was shocked.

This has been presented as an attempt, or at least the solicitation of an attempt, to blackmail these people with whatever embarrassing information could be found. Is that how you read it at the time?

Absolutely, yes. It was either blackmailing them, or bribing them, or threatening them. You know, not just them, but their countries. You know, it was really immoral, unethical behavior.

So the information desired might have been almost anything, right? A personal financial situation, an extramarital affair, a substance abuse problem, whatever. 

Right. Yeah, yeah. Exactly.

So you come into possession of this, along with roughly 100 other people at GCHQ. In the movie “Official Secrets,” the character called Katharine Gun, who is played by Keira Knightley, actually discusses this memo with colleagues at GCHQ. Did that actually happen?

Yeah, that's an interesting point. A lot of this whole story is very internal, OK? Because it's just about me and my internal monologue and my thought processes. But how do you portray that in a film? So, actually no, I didn't discuss it with anybody at work. In fact, we rarely discussed anything of any political interest.

I can imagine that's probably discouraged.

Yeah, it doesn't happen, and it’s kind of the usual office environment of gossip and intrigue. Unless you're focused on a very specific target, maybe in your section, then you might be talking about those particular characters and so on. But the general news that's going on at the time, we didn't really focus on it. So the whole thing was going on in my head.

Just to remind people of that political context, which is clear in the film: George W. Bush, with the loyal and devoted assistance of Tony Blair, who was prime minister at the time, was about to go to war with Iraq on the pretext that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. We know how that all turned out.

Well, the thing is, as Gavin Hood, the director of the film has pointed out, there are two normal routine ways to launch a war. The first one is to get UN cover, and the second one is in self-defense. So they were desperate, and especially Tony Blair was desperate to get UN cover. I think that was his main kind of bargaining chip with George Bush, that we have to get this UN cover for his own legitimacy.

Because that made him look less like a lapdog of the United States, perhaps?

Well, yeah. And also, himself being a lawyer. So anyway, leaking the memo essentially blew that up in their faces. That wasn't my intention. My intention was to prevent the war. But anyway, we'll get to that.

So, all right. You have this memo in your possession. What did you do with it?

I really felt that time was absolutely pressing, that there was no time to take it up to any of my superiors. Anyway, I felt they would just sweep it under the rug and would just keep an extra-special eye on me, it would be like flagging me as someone to keep an eye on. So I felt I had to get it out to the public. 

I didn't do anything on Friday, I went home and I thought about it over the weekend. I contacted someone I knew who had this contact in the antiwar movement, and I said, "I've got something which I think is explosive, you know, will you help me get it out?" She or he said, yes, they would take it and would post it onto this antiwar activist, who happened to be Yvonne Ridley.

Yes. Very well-known British activist and journalist.

Right. So that's what I did. So on Monday I went back into the office, and I printed off a copy of the memo. You know, immediately I felt like I basically had a target on my back. I folded it up and put it in my handbag, just as Keira Knightley does, and then I walked out of GCHQ with it in my bag.

They didn't have any security measures that would notice that you had printed this out, or perhaps send up a red flag?

Well, I mean, people print things out all the time. I don't know what happens now in the digital age, but back then it was quite normal to print things out and send them as a document to other people. So, that was not an immediate concern or risk type of thing. I don't know how often they scrutinize people's bags when they're going in and out of work, but still, you know, I was extremely nervous.

Yeah, I'm sure. Did you, as depicted in the film, physically pass a piece of paper to someone? Is that how this worked?

What actually happened was I mailed it. It went in the snail mail and they got it in a couple of days.

Which is still one of the best ways to avoid detection. Correct?

Well, in theory. Yeah.

But it was some time before all this came out in the press, right? Because that was when this all broke out into the open.

Well, it didn't actually come out in the press until, I think, the 2nd of March, so almost a whole month passed. I went on the antiwar protest in London on February the 15th, and by that point I'd kind of given up hope. I was thinking that maybe it wasn't going to come out, maybe it wasn't really as relevant as I thought it was. Anyway, I was so bowled over by the protest, that I thought, "Surely this is sending the message to Tony Blair that we do not want to go to war." It was such a spine-tingling historical moment. But despite all that, they went to war.

Yeah, millions of people marched around the world, including hundreds of thousands in the United States. And none of that prevented it.

Absolutely not. So then the story finally appears in the Observer, which is a Sunday newspaper. It's a paper that I used to buy regularly. So I went down to the shop, and I went to pick up a copy of it, and instantly, you know, is right there on the front page, “UN Dirty Tricks.” I mean, I recognized it straight away. The memo itself was replicated on the front covers, and I knew the game was up. I felt like I'd been identified just in that front page.

I guess, naively, I'd hoped or assumed that they would have printed an article that maybe talked about a source, right? “An intelligence source alleges that this is taking place.” But I can see why they didn't do that.

Right, they wanted to establish credibility.

And they wanted the impact of the story. Right? It definitely did create an impact, especially in countries like Chile and Mexico [then on the Security Council], countries that would've directly been targeted from the memo.

But nevertheless, when I saw the memo, I was utterly, utterly distraught. I was totally terrified. So that led to a whole sort of — the consequences of my action became apparent. I realized that I wasn't going to be able to remain silent, although I had promised the contact that I had passed the memo to that I would say nothing, I would do nothing, I would remain silent on the issue. I realized I couldn't do that, because I couldn't keep going to work pretending that I had nothing to do with it.

Yeah, this is interesting. You clearly made a very different decision from Edward Snowden, for instance. You didn’t make a break for it and then show up somewhere else. Was that an option you considered? 

Well, no. It had never occurred to me. I couldn't have run away, because my husband wouldn't have been able to come with me, and that's a whole other story. So no, I just thought I had to take the rap for it, and eventually I did. But initially, I denied having any involvement in it, and then I realized that wasn't a tangible route to go down, and I wasn't going to be able to sustain that. So the following day I went back into the office and I told my manager that it had been me, in fact.

Was that because they were going to conduct a mole hunt, so to speak?

Oh, they did. They started straight away on Monday, and they were interviewing every single person who'd received that email, and grilling them. Then, you know, eventually whittle down to a few that they were extra-suspicious about and then continue to grill them. I mean, the whole thing just seemed like I could not carry on denying my involvement, and also it was utterly unfair to the other people who would become suspect.

Right. So you copped to it, you told the truth. What happened then? Let’s note that the movie is called “Official Secrets,” which is a reference to the Official Secrets Act, which is the British law that covers revealing secret government information. 

Yes. Which you have to sign to work for GCHQ.

Right. So you had pretty clearly violated that law. Were you arrested? What happened after that?

Well, immediately after that, I was taken to the internal security section of GCHQ where I recounted my actions, but I refused to name the contact that I gave it to. In the meantime, they had called London's Special Branch down to arrest me, and I was taken away in an unmarked car to the local police station where they held me overnight.

Special Branch being a term in Britain that carries a pretty particular and slightly fearsome meaning, right?

Well, yeah. It’s a branch of the Metropolitan Police focused on more serious crime, and especially anything to do with these sorts of issues, intelligence issues and so on. Yeah.

So you were charged under the Official Secrets Act, eventually. We won’t go into that too much to preserve some of the film’s plot points, although your story is obviously public information.

I am always fascinated by this question. You are somebody who spent most of your life, probably before and after this incident of fame, leading a fairly normal existence with no intention of becoming famous. What's it like to see yourself portrayed on film by a famous actress? That must be peculiar.

Of course. Yeah, it's not something I would ever, ever have conceived of, right? First of all, I never set out to be a whistleblower. Secondly, I never expected that my story would be interesting to anybody. Third of all, you know, I was actually terrified of being named, of being identified.

When I was arrested, I wasn't named. Because I hadn't been charged. I wasn't charged until November 2003. So for eight months I was bailed, and month by month I was being bailed, and they didn't name me publicly. I was trying really hard to maintain this kind of life, whereby I was pretending I was on some kind of study course from GCHQ.

Yes. “On leave” or something like that. Obviously they didn’t want you going to work.

Right. I had been suspended from work. Then when they did charge me and my name came out, I was just terrified. I was terrified that suddenly I will be known everywhere I went. But in actual fact, nobody knows me, so that's great.

You certainly had a moment in Britain where people read about you. But you didn’t exactly become — I'm sure you are somewhat familiar with the case of Valerie Plame, the former CIA officer who became the center of a political controversy. That didn't exactly happen with you, right?

No, I mean, I guess I didn't seek the limelight. Well, at the end of ... I don't want to give the story away totally. But at the end of it all, I just wanted to disappear back into anonymity. So I had a full day of doing press interviews in London and talking, you know, to all the TV personnel, all the famous interviewers. Then I said, "That's it, I'm not doing anymore." I disappeared with my husband down to the coast in Brighton, on the coast of England, and spent some time away from the limelight. Then the story went away, and that's how I wanted it at that time, because I was actually quite traumatized by the whole thing.

It was very difficult for me to come to terms with what had happened. Although it was a tremendous relief that I wasn't going to suffer as much as I thought I was going to have to, there was an anticlimax aspect to the whole issue. Now the great thing about this film is that hopefully it's going to bring the issues back into the limelight, and that's what I want the film to do.

How do you perceive, from this distance — in terms of philosophy or politics or policy — the endgame or the long-term result here? Because, OK, you didn't stop the war from happening, the war happened anyway. But you did expose a great deal about how and why the war happened, and you certainly damaged Tony Blair's government considerably.

Yeah. Although they won a second election and came back [into power]. Again, you know, remarkably and very depressingly, Tony Blair is being brought out as this kind of wise statesman on various issues such as Brexit. You know, these people, from my point of view they have extremely damaged reputations, and I don't believe they have any moral authority to make any kind of public pronouncements. But they're still being wheeled out on the BBC and having articles in various newspapers. I don't know how we address this situation.

I suppose we have our own version of that. I mean, George W. Bush has had enough sense to stay out of the limelight. But there is still a sense in the United States, and I'm sure you're aware of this, that compared to the current administration in Washington, he looks good. It’s an invidious comparison, shall we say.

Well, I vaguely remember that when Bush was president, that people were saying that compared to Bush, Reagan was, you know … So it seems like it's getting progressively worse.

We still seem very confused, in Western societies, about how to deal with these questions about government secrets: When to expose them, and when it may be too damaging. I'm sure you watched the whole Snowden drama with some degree of personal interest. How would you evaluate the decisions that he made?

I don't know, it's very difficult. I've never met Snowden, I've never spoken with him personally. I mean, he's extremely smart. Very, very smart. I guess he was a lot less naive than I was. I mean, I think I was pretty naive. I didn't know how the game works, you know? I felt there was this information that was absolutely crucial, it had the potential to derail the rush to war, and I felt people had the right to know. 

I think with Snowden, it's a philosophical argument. And Julian Assange as well. With those guys, it's a philosophical argument. It's about the degree of transparency that we should expect from our governments. I think that's a whole different topic.

In both of those cases, the message has gotten extremely muddied recently. I don't believe Snowden ever intended to end up in Russia, that's certainly what he has said. But that decision looks different now than it did at the time. To many people in the United States, that creates a whole set of assumptions about why he did what he did and how he wound up there. And of course there is the evidence or implication that Assange was involved in attacks on Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Is it frustrating to see these political issues get in the way of our ability to think clearly about these questions?

I think to an extent it does. I mean, I don't think you should throw the baby out with the bathwater, you know? I think in the beginning, Assange and Snowden's argument was that the governments are lying to us. I mean, Ed Snowden was basically saying the same things that Bill Binney and Thomas Drake and other U.S. whistleblowers had said before him. But he came out more publicly, and maybe revealed more. He showed that when the U.S. government said, “We are not surveilling U.S. citizens,” that was a lie.

Julian Assange did show us, you know, through the Iraq war cables and so on, the absolute horrors of war, especially that video [“Collateral Murder”]. Those are incredibly important issues that need to be discussed and that we need nonpartisan answers to. I don't think it's helpful to have all the other baggage associated with those issues.

That’s so difficult in either of our nations right now. Our country appears to be embroiled in this bitter partisan dispute that keeps getting uglier and uglier. And your country is —

Equally consumed, yes. You know, I have got to the stage in my life where I'm really tired of all these partisan issues. I think the big issues are truth and justice and accountability in all sectors of society. You know, that is how things work to their best and most efficient way. I think that's what we need to focus on, is to go back to those things in the media, in the judiciary system, in the political system. I know it may be just a hope and a dream that never materializes, but I think there are enough wise and capable and willing people who will be able to direct us back that direction.

If we can survive the current set of crises. I don't know if it's overly grandiose to say there’s a crisis of democratic legitimacy, but in both of our countries there is an element of that. You know, people no longer feel faith in the system.

Right. I think that's why we see the backlash, you know, where people are just saying, "We've had enough, we're sick of not being represented, and we don't feel you have any legitimacy, and we reject your authority." It's understandable, but it's dangerous.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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