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Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. (Photo credit: Office of Tony Blair)
Ten years ago, Katharine Gun, then a 28-year-old British intelligence officer, saw an e-mailed memo from the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) that confirmed for her in black and white the already widespread suspicion that the U.S. and U.K. were about to launch war against Iraq on false pretenses.
Doing what she could to head off what she considered, correctly, an illegal war of aggression, she printed a copy of the memo and arranged for a friend to give it to the London Observer. "I have always ever followed my conscience," she said, explaining what drove her to take such a large risk.
The common excuse from politicians, bureaucrats, editors and other opinion leaders was that there was no way the momentum toward war could be stopped, so why take on the career damage that would result from getting in the way. And if Ms. Gun were made of lesser stuff, she might have hidden behind a similar self-serving excuse or found solace in other comforting rationalizations, like the government must know what it's doing, or what do I, a Mandarin-to-English translator, know about Iraq.
But Katharine Gun could smell a rat, as well as the sulfur of war, and she would not put her career and comfort ahead of the slaughter and devastation that war inevitably brings to innocent people. In that, she distinguished herself, just as many others in positions of authority disgraced themselves.
In fall 2002, Iraq's leader Saddam Hussein shocked the world by agreeing to a very intrusive U.N. inspection regime with inspectors crawling all over suspect sites in Iraq, though not finding one "weapon of mass destruction." Since Iraq's inventory of WMD was the main casus belli, things were getting downright embarrassing. Even a few in the domesticated "mainstream" media in the U.S. and U.K. were feeling some discomfort in merely feeding off the official statements of President George W. Bush and co-conspirator Prime Minister Tony Blair.
At that key moment, the U.S. and U.K. leaders intensified their effort to get the U.N. Security Council to approve the kind of resolution that would enable them to attack Iraq with at least a thin veneer of legality. We know from the Downing Street memos, which were leaked two years later, that U.K. Attorney General Peter Goldsmith had told Blair in July 2002 that, absent a new Security Council resolution, war on Iraq would be illegal.
So, in early 2003, the focus was riveted on the U.N. Security Council where Bush and Blair were having trouble rallying the three other recalcitrant permanent members -- France, China and Russia -- to support war on Iraq. Already facing that resistance, Bush and Blair were not about to brook interference by the non-permanent members. Thus, word went out to the U.S./U.K. intelligence services to ensure that none of those upstart nations did anything to complicate U.S./U.K. plans for war.
Accordingly, the NSA intensified electronic collection on those countries' representatives (as well as on officials of the three obstinate permanent members). The Bush administration wanted to learn immediately of anything that could help win the Security Council's approval of a resolution to make the attack "legal."
On Jan. 31, 2003, NSA's Frank Koza, head of "Regional Targets" (RT) sent a "HIGH-Importance," Top Secret e-mail to Britain's NSA counterpart, GCHQ, where Katharine Gun worked. The e-mail asked that British eavesdroppers emulate NSA's "surge" in electronic collection against Security Council members "for insights ... [on] plans to vote on any Iraq-related resolutions ... the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals or to head off surprises. ... [T]hat means a ... surge effort to revive/create efforts against UNSC members Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria and Guinea, as well as extra focus on Pakistan UN matters."
Koza's "surge" instruction left no doubt in Gun's mind that Bush and Blair were hell-bent to have their war -- legal or illegal -- and that she had been correct in dismissing recent assurances by GCHQ management that she and her co-workers would not be asked to cooperate in facilitating unprovoked war.
As Gun explained later to Marcia and Thomas Mitchell, authors of The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War, she calculated that if people could see how desperate Bush and Blair were to have an appearance of legitimacy for war, "Their eyes would be opened; they would see that the intention was not to disarm Saddam but in fact to go to war."
She made a copy of the Koza memo, walked out with it in her purse, and eventually gave it to a friend with contacts in the media. The London Observer got hold of it, was able to establish that it was authentic, and on March 2, 2003, two and a half weeks before the attack on Iraq front-paged the text of the memo with an accompanying article.
The report shook the government of Tony Blair and caused consternation on several continents. In the U.S., however, it was not a big story. For the New York Times, whose editors were either cheering on false articles about Iraq's WMD or going into a self-protective career crouch, it was no story at all.
The U.S. intelligence agencies stonewalled any media inquiries and the journalists quickly moved on to the main event, embedding themselves inside the U.S. military as war correspondents. The story from Gun's document -- indicating a major spying initiative to coerce sovereign countries to support an unprovoked war -- simply didn't fit with the narrative of "good guy" America taking on "bad guy" Iraq.
Despite the spying, Bush and Blair failed to win approval from the Security Council to invade Iraq, forcing Bush and Blair to lead a "coalition of the willing" and counting on the cowardice and complicity of the U.S./U.K. mainstream news media to ignore the inconvenient truth about the illegality of the invasion.
Confession and Charge
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