New York Times
January 19, 2004
By Bob Herbert
Katharine Gun has a much better grasp of the true spirit of democracy than Tony Blair. So, naturally, it's Katharine Gun who's being punished.
Ms. Gun, 29, was working at Britain's top-secret Government Communications Headquarters last year when she learned of an American plan to spy on at least a half-dozen U.N. delegations as part of the U.S. effort to win Security Council support for an invasion of Iraq.
The plans, which included e-mail surveillance and taps on home and office telephones, was outlined in a highly classified National Security Agency memo. The agency, which was seeking British assistance in the project, was interested in "the whole gamut of information that could give U.S. policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to U.S. goals."
Countries specifically targeted were Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria, Guinea and Pakistan. The primary goal was a Security Council resolution that would give the U.S. and Britain the go-ahead for the war.
Ms. Gun felt passionately that an invasion of Iraq was wrong — morally wrong and illegal. In a move that deeply embarrassed the American and British governments, the memo was leaked to The London Observer.
Which landed Ms. Gun in huge trouble. She has not denied that she was involved in the leak.
There is no equivalent in Britain to America's First Amendment protections. Individuals like Ms. Gun are at the mercy of the Official Secrets Act, which can result in severe — in some cases, draconian — penalties for the unauthorized disclosure of information by intelligence or security agency employees.
Ms. Gun was fired from her job as a translator and arrested for violating the act. If convicted, she will face up to two years in prison.
We are not talking about a big-time criminal here. We are not talking about someone who would undermine the democratic principles that George W. Bush and Tony Blair babble about so incessantly, and self-righteously, even as they are trampling on them. Ms. Gun is someone who believes deeply in those principles and was willing to take a courageous step in support of her beliefs.
She hoped that her actions would help save lives. She thought at the time that if the Security Council did not vote in favor of an invasion, the United States and Britain might not launch the war. In a statement last November she said she felt that leaking the memo was "necessary to prevent an illegal war in which thousands of Iraqi civilians and British soldiers would be killed or maimed."
"I have only ever followed my conscience," she said.
In 1971, in what the historian William Manchester described as "perhaps the most extraordinary leak of classified documents in the history of governments," Daniel Ellsberg turned over to The New York Times a huge study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. The Nixon administration tried to destroy Mr. Ellsberg. He was viciously harassed. His psychiatrist's office was burglarized. And he was charged with treason, theft and conspiracy.
The prosecution was not successful. The charges were thrown out due to government misconduct. In an interview last week, Mr. Ellsberg, who was with the Defense Department and the Rand Corporation in the 1960's and 70's, told me he wished he had blown the whistle much earlier on the deceptions and lies and other forms of official misconduct related to Vietnam.
He is lending his name to a campaign in support of Ms. Gun. She took a principled stand, he said, early enough to have a chance at altering events.
"What I've been saying since a year ago last October," said Mr. Ellsberg, "was that I hoped that people who knew that we were being lied into a wrongful war would do what I wish I had done in 1964 or 1965. And that was to go to Congress and the press with documents. Current documents. Don't do what I did. Don't wait years until the bombs are falling and then put out history."
Ms. Gun is being allowed by British courts to plead an unusual "defense of necessity." She has said that her disclosures were justified because they revealed "serious wrongdoing on the part of the U.S. government," and because she was sincerely trying to prevent the "wide-scale death and casualties" that would result from a war that was "illegal."
She's due in court today for a pretrial hearing.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company