“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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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.