Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
In early 2003, as the U.S. and British governments were seeking international acquiescence to their aggressive war on Iraq, an unexpected cog thrown into the propaganda machine was the disclosure that the National Security Agency was spying on UN Security Council members in search of blackmail material.
The revelation received little attention in the mainstream U.S. news media, which was almost fully onboard the pro-war bandwagon, but the disclosure received wide international attention and stopped the blackmail scheme. U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were forced to abandon a UN resolution and invade Iraq with a ragtag "coalition of the willing."
Now, a decade later, Edward Snowden, a young American systems analyst working for the NSA, has leaked documents revealing a global surveillance network and prompted another international debate -- about government spying vs. personal privacy. Katharine Gun joined Pacifica's "Flashpoints" host Dennis J Bernstein to discuss both cases.
DB: What exactly was your position when you decided to leak a certain document?
KG: My title was linguist analyst. I was a Mandarin Chinese speaker. We translated interceptions and produced reports for the various customers of GCHQ, which are normally the Foreign Office or MI-5 and MI-6.
DB: Can you explain the document you released and the significance of the timing?
KG: It was released at the end of January 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq. I saw an email that had been sent from the NSA to GCHQ. It was a request for GCHQ to help the NSA intercept the communications of six nations that sat on the Security Council at that time. It was to intercept their domestic and office telecoms in order to obtain all the information we could about the delegates, which the U.S. could then use to achieve goals favorable to U.S. interests. They called for the whole gamut of information, which made me think they would potentially use the information to blackmail or bribe the U.N. delegates.
DB: This bugging took place at the United Nations?
KG: Presumably, yes. Or it could involve the United Nations headquarters or also their domestic residence.
DB: The idea was to get the necessary information one way or the other to influence the key members to support the U.S. quest for war in Iraq?
KG: Yes. At the time, if you were not working for the intelligence services or the foreign offices of the U.S. or U.K. you would probably assume that the goal of [President George W.] Bush and [Prime Minister Tony] Blair at that time was to work diplomatically to reach a solution. But we now know, after several leaks over the years about the run-up to the war in Iraq, that war was the agenda all along. When I saw the email it made me think, "This is evidence that war is the agenda." That's why I decided the public needed to know.
DB: GCHQ is the British Government Communications Headquarters, the equivalent to the NSA [National Security Agency]. You were working there in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Can you remind us what governments were bugged?
KG: Six nations, smallish countries: Angola, Cameroon, and Pakistan, I think. Mexico was mentioned, and possibly Chile as well. They were countries that are generally not known for their big powerful positions at the U.N.
DB: What went through your mind leading up to the decision to leak this information? This big decision changed history a bit. How did you make this courageous decision that also changed your own life?
KG: I was very concerned. I had informed myself about the realities of Iraq and the situation there because I grew up during the first Gulf War and the following years of sanctions. It was in the back of my mind that Iraq was a country that was virtually destroyed, and that the people were living in impoverished conditions. It made me think that another attack on them would not be fair and justified because there was nothing about Iraq that was a threat to either the U.S. or the U.K.
So when I saw the email and realized what was going on behind closed doors was an attempt to get the U.N. to authorize what would then have become a pre-emptive strike on a country, I thought the public should know about this because it angered me.
DB: What happened after you made this information available? What happened with your position? Were you intimidated, attacked?