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.

Romola Garai in The Writer.
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The Writer at the Almeida: a drama which tries to have its meaning-cake and eat it

This isn’t a boring, safe three-star play: you’re either Team Five or Team One.

God, the Almeida’s new production knows how to push my buttons. “Don’t you know how hard it is to write a play?” one character shouts at another, two-thirds of the way through. Every fibre of my being wanted to scream back: “Try working down a mine!”

The Writer is an endlessly tricksy piece, trying to have its meaning-cake and eat it, showing you scenes and then immediately undercutting them with meta-narrative. What is it about? Good question. Impossible question. It begins with a young black woman (Lara Rossi) who has left her bag behind in the theatre. On her way out, she is cross-questioned by an older, effortlessly middle-class white man (Samuel West) about the play she’s just seen.

Her criticisms of the state of modern theatre are brutal: women are there to be judged on their looks, while we wait to hear what men will say and do. Girls in hotpants present themselves like animals on heat; actresses are encouraged to get naked on the thinnest of pretexts, when it’s very hard to be both topless and truly empowered. Even worse, the director “added a rape” because that’s seen as being both titillating and “edgy”.

I agreed with all this checklist of chauvinism, and I even recognised the lazy, patronising indulgence of the powerful man trotting out the usual defences in response. Surely, he says, you don’t want to ban people being sexy? The woman points out that she was talking about rape, not sex. Also, doesn’t he recognise her? She knows he directed the play she just watched. He once told her that her anger was impressive six years ago, when she was a student, and that she could have a career in the theatre. (Yes, apparently anger is a proxy for creative ability, which is why the YouTube comments section swept the board at the Oliviers.) Then he tried to kiss her. She didn’t want to accept a job on such compromised terms.

And – scene. Ho ho ho, what we’ve just been watching was, of course, a workshop of a new play. Perched on a folding chair in the middle of the stage, as if taking part in a post-show talk, The Writer (Romola Garai) is chided by another older white man (Michael Gould) that it’s too angry, too lacking in nuance. The problem is: while he is patronising, he is also right. It might have been entirely correct in its sentiments, but as drama, it only had one gear. If I wanted to watch people identify genuine problems with thumping earnestness and zero self-awareness . . . well, there are plenty of left-wing op-ed columnists for that.

This self-referentiality persists throughout. We get a scene with The Writer and her boyfriend, where he wants her to take a film job and she is too principled to do it. They have bad sex on the sofa he has just bought for her. The first scene had mentioned the cheapness of bringing a real baby on stage (a clear dig at The Ferryman), so a real baby is brought on stage. The audience coos appreciatively, because it’s impossible to resist millennia of genetic programming, even when you want to look cool and self-aware.

Then Romola Garai’s character monologues about having a contraceptive coil fitted, which then slips into a story of her swimming through a lake to a lost world where she has lesbian sex outdoors and feels happy for the first time not to experience the male gaze. (I don’t remember there being an obvious segue between the coil and the alfresco cunnilingus.) This "tribal shit" is no way to end a play, says Michael Gould’s Director, who has turned up stage-right. It’s not as good as your angry first scene. Again: the annoying man has a point.

Then he tells the Writer he’s only giving her these notes because he thinks she’s brilliant, which feels like incredible chutzpah in a drama which will inevitably be read as thinly veiled autobiography. (There's another moment like this, when The Director tells her that you can't write a play where the protagonist is endlessly self-involved, and she shoots back: "Hamlet!" It's a great joke, but it does also set the bar quite high for how good the rest of the writing has to be.)

The final scene also features The Writer, this time with her girlfriend, in a smart apartment, eating curry. She’s just handed in a project and wants to relax by going to her girlfriend’s bar to do something “manual” and switch her brain off. Her girlfriend gives her the same unimpressed look at this Marie Antoinette dilettantism that half the audience do.

The couple then have bad sex on the sofa. The Writer, who is clearly now rich and successful, is just as inattentive to her partner’s enjoyment as her boyfriend was before – edging towards the point made by Naomi Alderman’s The Power that it’s not some innate property of the Y chromosome which creates sex inequality, and therefore gender roles could plausibly flip one day. Give a woman a financially dependent, less outwardly successful partner and she can play all the subtle, controlling tricks we associate with rich old men.

I watched The Writer twice; once in previews, and the leaner, tighter version displayed on press night. I enjoyed it more the second time, because - whatever else you can say about this play - it elicits a strong response. Knowing that it would provoke me, not always intentionally, cleared my mind to notice the pacy direction and mostly strong performances by the cast.

In a way, I’m grateful. The Writer has made me think as much as any play I’ve seen this year. It’s prompted a series of searching conversations with the handful of other people I know who’ve seen it. (It also prompted eye-rolls at all the male critics who clearly felt boxed into being nice about it on pain of being identified as Lead Patriarchal Oppressor of British Theatre.) This isn’t a boring, safe three-star play: you’re either Team Five or Team One.

That said, I do resent the meta-theatricality, usurping my right to my own responses by telling me constantly how to feel about what I’ve just seen. The text tries to pre-empt criticisms by voicing them within the play - this is boring, this is too angry, this doesn’t have an ending - when it could work harder to rebut them instead. Are we meant to see The Writer’s complaints about the difficulty of creative work as heartfelt sentiments, expressed with refreshing candour? Most writers I know, male and female, feel similarly, self-indulgently wronged by a world where reality TV is more popular than whatever they’ve slaved over for months. They are just clever enough not to say these things in public, where you might end up talking to, say, an intensive care nurse. Yes, there are flicks of knowingness here and there, but how much ironic distance is there between The Writer’s view of herself and the text’s, in the end? (The play's author, Ella Hickson, has spoken of her dismay at hearing the audience laugh when the female character says at the start that she wants to "dismantle capitalism and overturn the patriarchy", as if that's evidence that we have lost confidence in the transformative power of theatre. But there's a difference between a character expressing ambition and one with a messiah complex. Put it this way: I've written some fairly scorching thinkpieces, but I don't think any of them will stop Brexit. And the closest theatre has recently come to making me want to smash capitalism is when I realised how much I'd spent on tickets to see the binbag-themed Macbeth at the National.)

The Writer invites us to hold it to a terrifyingly high standard, by presenting itself as dangerous – a vivid j’accuse to hidebound theatrical traditions and smug audiences. It elides criticisms of West End celebrity-driven flam and the lazy, highbrow male gaze merchants of the subsidised sector. Its few identifiable targets are not always the most obviously deserving of scorn. (I didn't much like The Ferryman, but there was a proper play hidden under the Riverdance and haunted grandmas.) In the first scene, there’s a glancing reference to Laura Wade’s play Posh, directed by Lyndsey Turner at the Royal Court. It was watched and enjoyed, says the young woman, by exactly the same establishment it sought to satirise. The choice of example sits oddly in a jeremiad against patriarchy, because this was a rare new-ish play both written by a woman and directed by one. Is The Writer on the side of these women struggling to be heard in a male-dominated industry? It doesn’t feel like it. Perhaps Posh should have featured a scene where we were told that the Bullingdon Club is bad, as is capitalism generally, just to hammer the point home? But that’s absurd, because there is no way that play left the audience in any doubt that they were meant to despise the Oxbridge window-smashers. Perhaps some people are simply beyond the reach of theatrical guilt-trips.

The Almeida has had an astonishing run over the last year, with awards and West End transfers raining from the heavens. But the Writer – inevitably – suggests on stage that her play has only been programmed because it would have been too awkward for a white middle-class male artistic director to reject it, in the era of Time’s Up and #MeToo. I didn’t like the audience’s knowing, indulgent laughter in that moment. It felt like the joke was on us, and we didn’t know it.

The Writer runs at the Almeida, London, until 26 May

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics.