The woman who nearly stopped the war

Five years ago, Katharine Gun, a translator at GCHQ, learned something so outrageous that she sacrif

Of all the stories told on the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War, there is one important episode that took place during the build-up to the conflict that has gone largely unreported. It concerns a young woman who was a witness to something so outrageous, something so contrary to the principles of diplomacy and international law, that in revealing it she believed war could be averted. That woman was Katharine Gun, a 29-year-old Mandarin translator at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham.

On Friday 31 January 2003 she and many of her colleagues were forwarded a request from the US government for an intelligence "surge" at the United Nations (with hindsight, an interesting choice of words). In essence, the US was ordering the intensification of espionage at the UN headquarters in New York to help persuade the Security Council to authorise war in Iraq. The aim, according to the email, was to give the United States "the edge" in negotiations for a crucial resolution to give international authorisation for the war. Many believed that, without it, the war would be illegal.

The email was sent by a man with a name straight out of a Hollywood thriller, Frank Koza, who headed up the "regional targets" section of the National Security Agency, the US equivalent of GCHQ. It named six nations to be targeted in the operation: Chile, Pakistan, Guinea, Angola, Cameroon and Bulgaria. These six so-called "swing nations" were non-permanent members of the Security Council whose votes were crucial to getting the resolution through. It later emerged that Mexico was also targeted because of its influence with Chile and other countries in Latin America, though it was not mentioned in the memo. But the operation went far wider - in fact, only Britain was specifically named as a country to be exempt from the "surge".

Koza insisted that he was looking for "insights" into how individual countries were reacting to the ongoing debate, "plans to vote on any related resolutions, what related policies/negotiating positions they may be considering, alliances/ dependencies etc". In summary, he added: "The whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers the edge in obtaining results favourable to US goals or to head off surprises." The scope of the operation was vast: "Make sure they pay attention to existing non-UNSC member UN-related and domestic comms for anything useful related to the UNSC deliberations/debates/votes," wrote Koza.

Gun was appalled by the email in two ways. First by the seediness of the operation: she believed the clear message was that GCHQ was being asked to find personal information that would allow Britain and America to blackmail diplomats in New York. But second and more importantly, she believed GCHQ was being asked to undermine the democratic pro cesses of the United Nations.

Secret email

Over the weekend after receiving the email, Gun decided to act. On returning to work on 3 February she printed out the document and took it home with her. She knew people involved with the anti-war movement and passed the email to a friend who was in contact with the media. This individual in turn passed it to the former Fleet Street journalist Yvonne Ridley, who had become famous as the reporter captured by the Taliban in 2001. By this time Ridley was a prominent opponent of the war. After first approaching the Mirror, which failed to verify the email, Ridley called me at the Observer, where I was working at the time, to ask if I would look at it.

The Koza memo presented me and my colleagues at the newspaper with a number of problems. For a start, the Observer supported the war in Iraq. Then there was the problem of verification. The Koza memo consisted of simply the body of the text, with all identifying information from the email header ripped from the top. In theory, anyone could have typed it. Koza's name was written on the back along with other clues to its veracity, but it could easily have been a hoax. We were also hamstrung by the fact that Gun had not come directly to the newspaper, so there was no way of going back to the source of the leak to check the information.

Peter Beaumont, the Observer's defence correspondent at the time, got his sources to confirm that the language used in the memo was consistent with the NSA and GCHQ.

But still there were doubts. One intelligence contact suggested it could be a sophisticated Russian forgery and another raised the possibility that British spy chiefs had written it to flush out anti-war elements at GCHQ. In the end, the paper's then US correspondent, Ed Vulliamy, struck lucky. After a string of "no comment" responses from the NSA, a phone call to the organisation's headquarters in Maryland was by chance put through to the office of Koza himself. This proved that he existed and we now felt confident that the email was genuine. Despite the paper's pro-war stance, the then editor, Roger Alton, would not have rejected a good story and on 2 March 2003 the Observer splashed on the tale of US dirty tricks at the United Nations.

The story was followed up around the world and caused fury in Chile, which had known its fair share of US dirty tricks during the 1970s. Mexico was equally unhappy and both countries distanced themselves from a second resolution as a result of the revelations. Other countries were less bold in the face of cajoling and bullying from the US, but it became clear in the weeks that followed the leak that a fresh UN resolution was never going to happen.

This was precisely what Katharine Gun had hoped for when she walked out of GCHQ with the document a month earlier. What she could not have known, however, was that George W Bush was determined to go to war, with or without the support of the UN.

Within days of the Observer article, Gun was arrested under the Official Secrets Act and almost a year later she finally appeared at the Old Bailey to stand trial for leaking the NSA document. But, in a dramatic retreat, the then attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, dropped the case at the last minute and despite her prima facie breach of the secrecy laws, Gun walked free.

What did she gain? She failed to stop a war that has now cost thousands of lives. She gave up a secure career as an expert translator. But she was one of the first to reveal the truth about the lies and dirty tricks that took us to war in 2003.

Britain's role

Questions still remain about Britain's involvement in the spying operation, which was the ultimate responsibility of the then prime minister, Tony Blair. A full inquiry into the Iraq War has now been promised by the present Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and, among other things, this should force the government to disclose the full extent of its knowledge of the 2003 intelligence "surge".

Those who doubt whether Gun's actions had lasting his torical significance should refer to the statement issued by the Crown Prosecution Service when the case was dropped on 26 February 2004. There was speculation that Lord Goldsmith backed down because Gun's defence requested disclosure of his legal opinion on the legitimacy of the war. As was later revealed, his legal opinion shifted as the prospects of a second UN resolution faded.

On this the CPS statement is clear: "This determination by the prosecution had nothing to do with advice given by the Attorney General to the government in connection with the legality of the Iraq War."

Instead, the prosecution stated that "there was no longer a realistic prospect of convicting Katharine Gun". The reasons for this remain a mystery, especially considering that Gun had admitted to the crime of leaking the document. Her only defence was the untried "defence of necessity", under which her lawyers would have argued that her actions were designed to stop the imminent loss of human life.

The CPS statement contains the following intriguing paragraph: "The evidential deficiency related to the prosecution's inability, with in the current statutory framework, to disprove the defence of necessity to be raised on the particular facts of this case."

Read through the legalese, this is an astonishing admission from the government that Katharine Gun's actions were entirely honourable. She really had tried to stop a war.

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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