Two-time Oscar nominee Keira Knightley is known for being in “period pieces” such as “Pride and Prejudice,” so her playing the lead in the new film “Official Secrets,” scheduled to be released in the U.S. on Friday, may seem odd at first. That is until one considers that the time span being depicted—the early 2003 run-up to the invasion of Iraq—is one of the most dramatic and consequential periods of modern human history.
It is also one of the most poorly understood, in part because the story of Katharine Gun, played by Knightley, is so little known. Having followed this story from the start, I find this film to be, by Hollywood standards, a remarkably accurate account of what has happened to date–“to date” because the wider story still isn’t over.
Katharine Gun worked as an analyst for Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British equivalent of the secretive U.S. National Security Agency. She tried to stop the impending invasion of Iraq in early 2003 by exposing the deceit of George W. Bush and Tony Blair in their claims about that country. For doing that she was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act—a juiced up version of the U.S. Espionage Act, which in recent years has been used repeatedly by the Obama administration against whistleblowers and now by the Trump administration against WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange.
Gun was charged for exposing—around the time of Colin Powell’s infamous testimony to the UN about Iraq’s alleged WMDs–a top secret U.S. government memo showing it was mounting an illegal spying “surge” against other U.N. Security Council delegations in an effort to manipulate them into voting for an Iraq invasion resolution. The U.S. and Britain had successfully forced through a trumped up resolution, 1441 in November 2002. In early 2003, they were poised to threaten, bribe or blackmail their way to get formal United Nations authorization for the invasion. [See recent interview with Gun.]
The leaked memo, published by the British Observer, was big news in parts of the world, especially the targeted countries on the Security Council, and helped prevent Bush and Blair from getting the second UN Security Council resolution they said they wanted. Veto powers Russia, China and France were opposed as well as U.S. ally Germany.
Washington invaded anyway of course—without Security Council authorization—by telling the UN weapons inspectors to leave Iraq and issuing a unilateral demand that Saddam Hussein leave Iraq in 48 hours—and then saying the invasion would commence regardless.
‘Most Courageous Leak’
It was the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, where I work (accuracy.org), Norman Solomon, as well as Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg who in the U.S. most immediately saw the importance of what Gun had done. Ellsberg would later comment: “No one else—including myself—has ever done what Katharine Gun did: Tell secret truths at personal risk, before an imminent war, in time, possibly, to avert it. Hers was the most important—and courageous—leak I’ve ever seen, more timely and potentially more effective than the Pentagon Papers.”
Of course, no one knew her name at the time. After the Observer broke the story on March 1, 2003, accuracy.org put out a series of news releases on it and organized a sadly, sparsely attended news conference with Ellsberg on March 11, 2003 at the National Press Club, focusing on Gun’s revelations. Ellsberg called for more such truth telling to stop the impending invasion, just nine days away.
Though I’ve followed this case for years, I didn’t realize until recently that accuray.org’s work helped compel Gun to expose the document. At a recent D.C. showing of “Official Secrets” that Gun attended, she revealed that she had read a book co-authored by Solomon, published in January 2003 that included material from accuracy.org as well as the media watch group FAIR debunking many of the falsehoods for war.
I went to the local bookshop, and I went into the political section. I found two books, which had apparently been rushed into publication, one was by Norman Solomon and Reese Erlich, and it was called Target Iraq. And the other one was by Milan Rai. It was called War Plan Iraq. And I bought both of them. And I read them cover to cover that weekend, and it basically convinced me that there was no real evidence for this war. So I think from that point onward, I was very critical and scrutinizing everything that was being said in the media.
Thus, we see Gun in “Official Secrets” shouting at the TV to Tony Blair that he’s not entitled to make up facts. The film may be jarring to some consumers of major media who might think that Donald Trump invented lying in 2017.
Gun’s immediate action after reading critiques of U.S. policy and media coverage makes a strong case for trying to reach government workers by handing out fliers and books and putting up billboards outside government offices to encourage them to be more critically minded.
Gun’s revelation showed that the U.S. and British governments were not only lying to invade Iraq, they were violating international law to blackmail whole nations to get in line.
Mainstream reviews of “Official Secrets” still seem to not fully grasp the importance of what they just saw. The trendy AV Club review leads: “Virtually everyone now agrees that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a colossal mistake based on faulty (at best) or fabricated (at worst) intelligence.” “Mistake” is a serious understatement even with “colossal” attached to it when the movie details the diabolical, illegal lengths to which the U.S. and British governments went to get other governments to go along with it.
Gun’s revelations showed before the invasion that people on the inside, whose livelihood depends on following the party line, were willing to risk jail time to out the lies and threats.
Portrayal of The Observer
Other than Gun herself, the film focuses on a dramatization of what happened at her work; as well as her relationship with her husband, a Kurd from Turkey who the British government attempted to have deported to get at Gun. The film also portrays the work of her lawyers who helped get the Official Secrets charge against her dropped, as well as the drama at The Observer, which published the NSA document after much internal debate.
Observer reporter Martin Bright, whose strong work on the original Gun story was strangely followed by an ill-fated stint at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, has recently noted that very little additional work has been done on Gun’s case. We know virtually nothing about the apparent author of the NSA document that she leaked—one “Frank Koza.” Other questions persist, such is how prevalent is this sort of U.S. blackmail of foreign governments to get UN votes or for other purposes? How is it leveraged? Does it fit in with allegations made by former NSA analyst Russ Tice about the NSA having massive files on political people?
Observer reporter Ed Vulliamy is energetically depicted getting tips from former CIA man Mel Goodman. There do seem to be subtle but potentially serious deviations from reality in the film. Vulliamy is depicted as actually speaking with “Frank Koza,” but that’s not what he originally reported:
The NSA main switchboard put The Observer through to extension 6727 at the agency which was answered by an assistant, who confirmed it was Koza’s office. However, when The Observer asked to talk to Koza about the surveillance of diplomatic missions at the United Nations, it was then told ‘You have reached the wrong number’. On protesting that the assistant had just said this was Koza’s extension, the assistant repeated that it was an erroneous extension, and hung up.
There must doubtlessly be many aspects of the film that have been simplified or altered regarding Gun’s personal experience. A compelling part of the film—apparently fictitious or exaggerated—is a GCHQ apparatchik questioning Gun to see if she was the source.
Little is known about the reaction inside the governments of Security Council members that the U.S. spied on. After the invasion, Mexican Ambassador Adolfo Aguilar Zinser spoke in blunt terms about U.S. bullying—saying it viewed Mexico as its patio trasero, or back yard—and was Zinser was compelled to resign by President Vicente Fox. He then, in 2004, gave details about some aspects of U.S. surveillance sabotaging the efforts of the other members of the Security Council to hammer out a compromise to avert the invasion of Iraq, saying the U.S. was “violating the U.N. headquarters covenant.” In 2005, he tragically died in a car crash.
Documents leaked by Edward Snowden and published by The Intercept in 2016 boasted of how the NSA “during the wind-up to the Iraq War ‘played a critical role’ in the adoption of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The work with that customer was a resounding success.” The relevant document specifically cites resolutions 1441 and 1472 and quotes John Negroponte, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations: “I can’t imagine better intelligence support for a diplomatic mission.” (Notably, The Intercept has never published a word on “Katharine Gun.”)
Nor were the UN Security Council members the only ones on the U.S. hit list to pave the way for the Iraq invasion. Brazilian Jose Bustani, the director-general of the international Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. was ousted in an effective coup by John Bolton in April of 2002. Bolton is now national security adviser.
“Official Secrets” director Gavin Hood is perhaps more right than he realizes when he says that his depiction of the Gun case is like the “tip of an iceberg,” pointing to other deceits surrounding the Iraq war. His record with political films has been uneven until now. Peace activist David Swanson, for instance, derided his film on drones, “Eye in the Sky.” At a D.C. showing of “Official Secrets,” Hood depicted those who backed the Iraq war as being discredited. But that’s simply untrue.
Leading presidential candidate Joe Biden—who not only voted for the Iraq invasion, but presided over rigged hearings on it in 2002–has recently falsified his record repeatedly on Iraq at presidential debates with hardly a murmur. Nor is he alone. Those refusing to be held accountable for their Iraq war lies include not just Bush and Cheney, but John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi.
Biden has actually faulted Bush for not doing enough to get United Nations approval for the Iraq invasion. But as the Gun case helps show, there was no legitimate case for invasion and the Bush administration had done virtually everything, both legal and illegal, to get UN authorization.
Many who supported the invasion try to distance themselves from it. But the repercussions of that illegal act are enormous: It led directly or indirectly to the rise of ISIS, the civil war in Iraq and the war in Syria. Journalists who pushed for the Iraq invasion are prosperous and atop major news organizations, such as Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt. The editor who argued most strongly against publication of the NSA document at The Observer, Kamal Ahmed, is now editorial director of BBC News.
The British government—unlike the U.S.–did ultimately produce a study ostensibly around the decision-making leading to the invasion of Iraq, the Chilcot Report of 2016. But that report—called “devastating” by the The New York Times–made no mention of the Gun case. [See accuracy.org release from 2016: “Chilcot Report Avoids Smoking Gun.”]
After Gun’s identity became known, the Institute for Public Accuracy brought on Jeff Cohen, the founder of FAIR, to work with program director Hollie Ainbinder to get prominent individuals to support Gun. The film—quite plausibly—depicts the charges being dropped against Gun for the simple reason that the British government feared that a high profile proceeding would effectively put the war on trial, which to them would be have been a nightmare.