GCHQ worker Katharine Gun faces jail for exposing American corruption in the run-up to war on Saddam. Now her celebrity supporters insist it is Bush and Blair who should be in the dock.
January 18, 2004
By Martin Bright
She was an anonymous junior official toiling away with 4,500 other mathematicians, code-breakers and linguists at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham.
But now Katharine Gun, an unassuming 29-year-old translator, is set to become a transatlantic cause célèbre as the focus of a star-studded solidarity drive that brings together Hollywood actor-director Sean Penn and senior figures from the US media and civil rights movement, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
Gun appears in court tomorrow accused of breaching the Official Secrets Act by allegedly leaking details of a secret US 'dirty tricks' operation to spy on UN Security Council members in the run-up to war in Iraq last year. If found guilty, she faces two years in prison. She is an unlikely heroine and those who have met her say she would have been happy to remain in the shadows, had she not seen evidence in black and white that her Government was being asked to co-operate in an illegal operation.
The leak has been described as 'more timely and potentially more important than The Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg, the celebrated whistleblower who leaked papers containing devastating details of the US involvement in Vietnam, in 1971. Ellsberg has been vocal in support of Gun. She was arrested last March, days after The Observer first published evidence of an intelligence 'surge' on UN delegations, ordered by the GCHQ's partner organisation, the National Security Agency.
Legal experts believe that her case is potentially more explosive for the Government than the Hutton inquiry because it could allow her defence team to raise questions about the legality of military intervention in Iraq. The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, is likely to come under pressure to disclose the legal advice he gave on military intervention - something he has so far refused to do.
At a hearing last November, Gun's legal team indicated that she would use a defence of 'necessity' to argue that she acted to save the lives of British soldiers and Iraqi civilians.
At the time Gun, who was sacked after her arrest and whose case is funded by legal aid, said in a statement: 'Any disclosures that may have been made were justified on the following grounds: because they exposed serious illegality and wrongdoing on the part of the US government who attempted to subvert our own security services; and to prevent wide-scale death and casualties among ordinary Iraqi people and UK forces in the course of an illegal war.'
She added: 'I have only ever followed my conscience.'
Sean Penn and Jesse Jackson have already signed a statement of support for Gun and a broader campaign will be launched later this year. They are joined by Ellsberg, who is keen to travel to Britain soon to meet Gun.
Other signatories of the statement, to be released in the coming weeks, include Linda Foley, president of the Newspaper Guild, and Ramona Ripston of the American Civil Liberties Union, both in their personal capacities.
The statement is a glowing tribute to the publicity-shy GCHQ mole who has avoided all media attention since her arrest: 'We honour Katharine Gun as a whistleblower who bravely risked her career and her very liberty to inform the public about illegal spying in support of a war based on deception. In a democracy, she should not be made a scapegoat for exposing the transgressions of others.'
The statement also pays tribute to the transatlantic opposition to the war in Iraq, which it links to historical campaigns against oppression. 'There has been much talk in recent months about the "special relationship" between the US and British governments, which led the world to war, but history tells us of another "special relationship" - between people of good will in the United States and Britain who worked together in opposition to slavery and colonialism, and most recently against the push for war on Iraq. It is in the spirit of friendship between our peoples in defence of democracy that we sign this statement.'
The leaked memorandum - dated 31 January 2003 - from Frank Koza, chief of staff of the NSA's Regional Targets section, requested British intelligence help to discover the voting intentions of the key 'swing six' nations at the UN. Angola, Cameroon, Guinea, Chile, Mexico and Pakistan were under intense pressure to vote for a second resolution authorising war in Iraq.
The disclosure of the 'dirty tricks' memo caused serious diplomatic difficulties for the countries involved and in particular the socialist government in Chile, which demanded an immediate explanation from Britain and America. The Chilean public is deeply sensitive to dirty tricks by the American intelligence services, which are still held responsible for the 1973 overthrow of the socialist government of Salvador Allende. In the days that followed the disclosure, the Chilean delegation in New York distanced itself from the draft second resolution, scuppering plans to go down the UN route.
Opposition politicians are already increasing pressure on Tony Blair to release Goldsmith's legal advice. Parliamentary answers last week to Lord Alexander of Weedon QC, the Tory head of the all-party legal reform group Justice, show that the Government recognises there are precedents for disclosure.
In 1993, government legal advice in the arms-to-Iraq affair was disclosed to the Scott inquiry and advice concerning the 1988 Merchant Shipping Act was disclosed when Spanish fishermen argued that it breached EU law. The government response of Baroness Amos would appear to be an open invitation to Gun's defence team: 'In both cases, disclosure was made for the purposes of judicial proceedings.'
But she continued: 'It has been made clear in a number of parliamentary questions that the Attorney General's detailed advice would not be disclosed in view of a long-standing convention, adhered to by successive governments, that advice of law officers is not publicly disclosed. The purpose of the convention is to enable the Government, like everyone else, to receive full and frank legal advice in confidence.'
A summary of the legal advice published on 17 March last year showed that Goldsmith believed that UN Resolution 678, which authorised force against Iraq to eject it from Kuwait in 1990, could be used to justify the conflict. This position has been fiercely criticised by most experts in international law, who argue that 678 applied specifically to the threat posed to the region by Saddam in 1990. Alexander has accused Goldsmith of 'scraping the bottom of the legal barrel' and described the use of 678 as 'risible'.
When the details of the GCHQ disclosure were published in The Observer on 2 March last year, there was considerable media speculation that Goldsmith was set to resign over the issue of his legal advice over the war. Foreign Office legal experts were known to be split on the issue.
A key figure could prove to be 54-year-old Elizabeth Wilmshurst, deputy legal adviser to the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, who stepped down on 21 March. Wilmshurst is said to have left her post because she would not agree to Goldmith's legal advice.
Since leaving her post she has not spoken about the crucial discussions in the Foreign Office last March. Many believe that a second whistleblower could prove fatal to the Government.
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