“It was about the potential slaughter of citizens”

Katharine Gun discusses her arrest in 2003 for leaking US plans to illegally bug countries opposed t

Katharine Gun was 29 years old when the government tried to prosecute her for breaching the Official Secrets Act.

It was early 2003, and both Britain and America were on the road to war with Iraq. Amid since-discredited claims that Iraq was allegedly producing biological weapons, the British prime minister, Tony Blair, and the US president, George W Bush, met at the White House. That same day, 31 January 2003, an email passed across Gun's desk at her office in Cheltenham, where she worked as a translator for the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the intelligence agency.

The email shocked her. From the US National Security Agency (NSA), it detailed US plans to illegally bug the offices of six UN member states in the lead-up to the Iraq war. Its intention was clear – it asked for British help in the ploy, to give US policymakers "the edge" in swaying opinion in favour of the war.

This was a direct attempt to undermine democratic process, Gun felt, and she had to do something about it.

Eight years on and now a mother, she recalls her thoughts that day. "I was particularly concerned about the reason behind the bugging, because it was in order to facilitate an invasion in Iraq," she says. "It was about the potential slaughter of citizens and the disruption and destruction of a country which was already practically on its knees. I felt that the public really needed to know about that."

"The state of America"

She printed off a copy and stewed on it for a while, before passing it on to a friend with ties to journalists. Not long later, the story appeared on the front page of the Observer, two weeks before the Iraq invasion. Gun knew she was in for trouble when she saw the headline one quiet Sunday at her local shop. It read: "Revealed: US dirty tricks to win vote on Iraq war".

A full-blown government investigation ensued, and it wasn't long before Gun cracked under pressure and admitted to the leak. She was promptly arrested and charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act. But after several high-profile court visits, the charges were dropped when the prosecution declined to give evidence.

Yet even after clearing her name and moving far away from the GCHQ heartland in Cheltenham, Gun found it hard to leave her past behind as she took up new career in teaching. "It was quite difficult at first to let go of that name tag that was applied to me," she says, "and it did take quite a while – maybe two years – before I got back into my own skin."

Would she do it again if faced with the same choice today? "That is a difficult question," she replies. "Before I had a child my answer was always, 'Yes, I would do it again,' but when you have a family and a child to think about, then it does put a slightly different twist on the whole issue . . . You've got to weigh up your decisions."

Now a full-time mother, Gun remains vocal in her support for the principles behind whistleblowing. In December, she signed a statement in support of WikiLeaks along with the Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg and other prominent former whistleblowers.

She also expresses her alarm at the treatment of Bradley Manning, the 23-year-old US soldier accused of leaking thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. Manning has been held in solitary confinement for more than 300 days, in conditions Amnesty International has described as "inhumane" and "repressive".

"It's atrocious that in a so-called democracy a soldier serving in the US army is facing that sort of treatment, which, I believe, is against any proper legal jurisdiction," says Gun. "It just goes to show the state of America – how fearful they are of losing their grip on absolute power in the global world."

The modern way of spying

The sheer volume of documents Manning is alleged to have leaked – over 700,000 – would have been inconceivable back in 2003, the year Gun released her solitary email to the world.

Since then, technology has allowed for leaking on an industrial scale, like never before. At the same time governments have evolved new ways of spying on each other. Last November, it was revealed – in a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, no less – that the US had plotted secretly to illegally obtain biometric data (including iris scans, fingerprints and DNA) as well as credit-card information from the UN leadership.

The revelation caused a sensation, but for Gun it was a familiar story that hardly came as a surprise.

"That's just the way of the world," she says. "The whole Big Brother vision of the world is looming large . . . Until people open their eyes and realise what it means to start relinquishing these things, it'll be too late."

Ryan Gallagher is a freelance journalist based in London, currently working for the Frontline Club. His website is here.

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Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s echoes of New Labour

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through bold policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s strategy was so successful that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness.

But, as some say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh; when you make, as you will, bad decisions; when the list of enemies grows long; when you’ve simply had your time; you’ll fall like all the rest. Only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. The debate on 21 May between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of a sure outcome – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. That is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’être is independence; everything else is just another brick to build the path. And so its education reform cannot be either brave or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions, or parents.

The same goes for the NHS, and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature – is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: “It’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs.”

Yet the voters show signs of wearying. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren.

So, during the debate, it was Nicola Sturgeon, not the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, or Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs.

There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use food banks (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster). “I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish government],” Claire Austin told the panel. “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.” She delivered the killer line of the evening: “Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you . . . in this election?”

The list of reasonable criticisms of the SNP’s governance is growing. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off. Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried Middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nationalists’ constitution explicitly prohibits SNP elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. Although total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing.

The word “cult” has long dogged the SNP. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning, but this has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage door at times). After the debate, Claire Austin found herself at its mercy as the Nats briefed – wrongly – that she was the wife of a Tory councillor. The SNP branch in Stirling said, Tebbitishly, that if she was having to use food banks, “Maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?”

Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, was forced to apologise for spreading “Twitter rumours” about Austin. The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but it hasn’t gone away – it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated: they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party.

I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall, it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, and its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly exasperate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and many signs that things will get worse.

How then do you arrest your fall? The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed it. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed. 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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