“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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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.