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.”