official secrets…

I went to the Watershed again this morning(!) to see Gavin Hood’s “true-story thriller” about Katharine Gun (convincingly played by Keira Knightly), the British secret service whistleblower who tried to stop the Iraq War. In 2003, on the eve of the UK-US invasion of Iraq, Gun (who was working at GCHQ) intercepted communications that revealed the UK was being asked to spy on UN Security Council Members to help influence votes sanctioning the invasion.
This came as a shocking revelation to Gun. She was fully aware of her legal responsibilities towards her employer (she’d signed the Official Secrets Act) and also the risks to her own family’s security (her husband was a Muslim immigrant awaiting permanent residency status). As a government employee, is it ever right to leak state secrets? When is such a thing in the national interests? War would inevitably bring huge loss of life…
What should she do?
Well, of course, she decided to leak the document. Surely, you remember?
The Guardian newspaper subsequently published the story (risking prosecution themselves) … and, somewhat predictably, Katharine Gun was duly arrested and charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act (as an interesting, disturbing aside, she was also advised that taking legal advice would be against Official Secrets Act!).

Yes, I know it’s all about stuff that relates back to events that took place 16 years ago… but, for me, it marked the time I stopped believing that we could trust a UK government (of any political persuasion) ever again. I was one of the huge number of people who took part in the Anti-War march in February 2003.
I had written to Tony Blair on 25 January 2003 expressing my “very deep concern” about his government’s “apparent commitment to go to war against Iraq”. In my letter, I told him that:
“I feel a real sense of unease at recent developments and your Government’s handling of the situation.  I would seriously question the morality and legality of war against Iraq at the present time and would urge that force should be considered only as a last resort - and, crucially, ONLY with UN support”.
Initially, in January 2003, the attorney general Lord Goldsmith advised Blair that war would not be legal but, “after he’d met with White House officials”, he changed his mind and, ultimately, Blair decided to ignore public opinion and his attorney general’s initial legal advice (despite the Cabinet not having been told of the attorney general’s initial legal opinion).

Gun was duly brought to trial in February 2004. She pleaded ‘not guilty’ saying in her defence that she had acted to prevent imminent loss of life in a war she considered illegal (numbers of reported deaths vary widely, but they're certainly in excess of half a million). If she’d have pleaded ‘guilty’, she’d have faced a prison sentence and the case would have been soon forgotten… In the event, she pleaded ‘not guilty’ and, within half an hour, the prosecution team declined to offer evidence and the case was dropped. The day before the trial, Gun's defence team had asked the government for any records of legal advice about the lawfulness of the war that it had received during the run-up to the war. A full trial might well have exposed any such documents to public scrutiny… and, as a result, led to the war being declared unlawful (and an investigation into possible war crimes?). To my mind, the subsequent Chilcot Inquiry represented something of a whitewash and left a very bitter taste in one’s mouth (well, my mouth!).

I think the Iraq War represented a turning point in the public’s trust (or lack of it) in politicians (ok, I know that Thatcher also “stretched the truth” about certain aspects of the Falklands War!) – certainly here in the UK, but also across the world. Now, with Brexit, Trump, social media (and media) manipulation and the like, I think many of us feel that we can do very little individually to influence political thinking and affect the election of governments.
There was a wonderful line in the film (voiced by Gun) which produced smirks of approval from today’s audience: “Just because you are prime minister that doesn’t mean that you’re allowed to make things up”. Damn right (and still VERY relevant today!)!
It’s a very good, powerful film. It’s not utterly brilliant cinema, but it DOES remind us of this important story. I think you ought to see it. It reminded me just how angry I felt at the time (and how angry I STILL feel). The duplicity. The injustice. The deception. The lies…
Who Do They Think We Are?
PS: In 2003, I also sent a copy of my letter to Blair to a) all members of the cabinet, b) Mr Iain Duncan Smith, Leader of the Opposition, c) Charles Kennedy, LibDems Leader and d) a certain Boris Johnson, our ineffective, bumbling MP!

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