On 31 January 2003, Katharine Gun, a 28-year old translator of Mandarin at Government Communication Headquarters in Cheltenham, arrived at work to find she had been copied in to an email from Frank Koza at the American National Security Agency.
With the US and UK facing stiff opposition at the United Nations to its aggressive stance on Iraq, the email explained how the American and British intelligence agencies were mounting a “dirty tricks” operation at the Security Council in an attempt to gain support for an invasion.
Horrified by the criminal content of the email, Gun passed it, via a friend, first to journalist Yvonne Ridley and then to The Observer’s Martin Bright, who published it in the paper two weeks later. “If people knew what was really going on, they would understand that the intent all along was war, not disarmament”, Gun noted later.
Soon uncovered as the whistleblower and under intense pressure, Gun was sacked from her job, briefly held in police custody, had her house searched and was charged under the Official Secrets Act. However, on the day the trial was scheduled to begin the prosecution mysteriously dropped the charges – which many believe was due to Gun’s legal team basing their case on the question of the war’s legality.
The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War successfully locates Gun’s personal journey within an accessible account of the key moments and documents – such as the explosive revelations of the Downing Street Memo – in the lead-up to war. Although the lies, deceit and power politics detailed by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell are now over five years old, reading through them will undoubtedly make those who opposed the war in 2003 angry all over again.
In no way an activist when she made the leak, Gun comes across as a courageous, very human figure – a perfect example of an ordinary person influencing world events by taking an uncompromising moral stand. The case led to more pressure on the Government to release the Attorney General’s full legal advice, to further UN spying allegations and, it could be argued, contributed to the collapse of the all-important second UN resolution, which would have given the invasion considerably more legitimacy.
“I have only ever followed my conscience”, Gun told the press in 2004. Hopefully her extraordinary story will inspire others to take similar action in the future.