Film “Official Secrets” Points to a Mammoth Iceberg


Two-time Oscar nominee Keira Knightley is known for being in “period pieces” such as “Pride and Prejudice,” so her playing the lead in the recently released film “Official Secrets” may seem odd at first. That is until one considers that the time span being depicted — the early 2003 run-up to the invasion of Iraq — is one of the most dramatic and consequential periods of modern human history.

It is also one of the most poorly understood, in part because the story of Katharine Gun, played by Knightley, is so little known. I should say from the outset that having followed the story from the start, I find this film to be, by Hollywood standards, a remarkably accurate account of what has happened to date.

“To date” because the wider story still isn’t really over. Katharine Gun worked as an analyst for Government Communications Headquarters, the British equivalent of the secretive U.S. National Security Agency. She tried to stop the impending invasion of Iraq in early 2003 by exposing the deceit of George W. Bush and Tony Blair in their claims about Iraq. She was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act — a juiced up version of the U.S. Espionage Act, which has in recent years been used repeatedly by the Obama administration against whistleblowers and now by the Trump administration against Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange.  

Katharine Gun. Credit: Sam Husseini

Gun was charged for exposing — around the time of Colin Powell’s infamous testimony to the UN about Iraq’s alleged WMDs — a top secret U.S. government memo showing it was mounting an illegal spying “surge” against other U.N. Security Council delegations in an effort to force approval for an Iraq invasion resolution. The U.S. and Britain had successfully forced through a trumped up resolution, 1441 in November 2002. In early 2003, they were poised to threaten, bribe or blackmail their way to actual United Nations authorization for the invasion.

The leaked memo, published by the British Observer, was big news in parts of the world, especially the targeted countries on the Security Council, and effectively prevented Bush and Blair from getting a second UN Security Council resolution they said they wanted. 

U.S. government started the invasion anyway of course — without Security Council authorization — by telling the UN weapons inspectors to leave Iraq and issuing a unilateral demand that Saddam Hussein leave Iraq in 48 hours — and then saying the invasion would commence regardless.

In the U.S., Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, where I work, and Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg most immediately saw the importance of what Gun did. Dan would later comment: “No one else — including myself — has ever done what Katharine Gun did: Tell secret truths at personal risk, before an imminent war, in time, possibly, to avert it. Hers was the most important — and courageous — leak I’ve ever seen, more timely and potentially more effective than the Pentagon Papers.”

Of course, we didn’t know her name at the time. After the Observer broke the story on March 1, 2003, we at put out a series of news releases on Gun’s revelations and organized a sparsely attended news conference with Dan on March 11, 2003 at the National Press Club. He called for more such truth telling to stop the impending invasion. 

Even though I followed this case for years, I didn’t realize until recently that our work helped compel Gun to expose the document. I found out at a recent D.C. showing of “Official Secrets” that Gun had read a book co-authored by Norman, published in January 2003, which included material from as well as the media watch group FAIR that debunked many of the falsehoods for war.

Said Gun about the period just before she disclosed the document: “I went to the local bookshop, and I went into the political section. I found two books, which had apparently been rushed into publication, one was by Norman Solomon and Reese Erlich, and it was called Target Iraq. And the other one was by Milan Rai. It was called War Plan Iraq. And I bought both of them. And I read them cover to cover that weekend, and it basically convinced me that there was no real evidence for this war. So I think from that point onward, I was very critical and scrutinizing everything that was being said in the media.” 

I didn’t fully appreciate the value of the exposure as much as Dan and Norman did at the time. To my mind, the lies were obvious, We debunked Bush administration propaganda in real time — see an overview of our work that I wrote to Rob Reiner when I learned of his then-upcoming film, “Shock and Awe“. But Gun’s revelation showed that the U.S. and British governments were not only lying to get to invade Iraq, they were engaging in outright violations of international law to blackmail whole countries to get in line. 

It’s funny to read mainstream reviews of “Official Secrets” now — they seem to still not fully grasp the importance of what they just saw. The trendy AV Club review leads: “Virtually everyone now agrees that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a colossal mistake based on faulty (at best) or fabricated (at worst) intelligence.” Well, “mistake” is a serious understatement even with “colossal” attached to it for something so fervently pursued and you just saw a movie about the diabolical, illegal lengths to which the U.S. and British governments went to get everyone in line for it. So, no “fabricated” is not the “worst” it is. 

Gun’s revelations showed before the invasion that people on the inside, whose livelihood depends on following the party line, were willing to risk jail time to out the lies and threats. 

Other than Gun herself, the film focuses on a dramatization of what happened at her work; as well as her relationship with her husband, who happens to be a Kurdish gentleman from Turkey — with the British government attempting to get at Gun by moving to deport him. The other key focuses in the film are her able legal team at Liberty and the drama at The Observer, which published the NSA document after much debate.   

Observer reporter Martin Bright, whose stellar work on the original Gun story was strangely followed by things like predictably ill fated stints at organizations like the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, has recently noted that very little additional work has been done on this key case. We know virtually nothing about the apparent author of the NSA document — one “Frank Koza.” How prevalent is this sort of blackmail? How exactly is it leveraged? If the U.S. government does this sort of thing, why would they wait till the last minute? Does it fit in with allegations made by former NSA analyst Russ Tice about the NSA having massive files on political people? 

There do seem to be subtle but potentially serious deviations from reality in the film. Observer reporter Ed Vulliamy is energetically depicted getting tips from former CIA man Mel Goodman. In the movie, Vulliamy is depicted as actually speaking with “Frank Koza,” but that’s not what he originally reported: “The NSA main switchboard put The Observer through to extension 6727 at the agency which was answered by an assistant, who confirmed it was Koza’s office. However, when The Observer asked to talk to Koza about the surveillance of diplomatic missions at the United Nations, it was then told ‘You have reached the wrong number’. On protesting that the assistant had just said this was Koza’s extension, the assistant repeated that it was an erroneous extension, and hung up.”

One similarity between this and Knightley’s other work is its distinct Anglocentrism. Gun’s revelation had the biggest impact on several non-permanent members of the Security Council members, in all likelihood, especially Angola, Cameroon, Guinea, Pakistan, Mexico and Chile. I’ve seen very little about what exactly happened in those countries and in those delegations. The most is probably know about Mexico, which was represented by Adolfo Aguilar Zinser.

After the invasion, he spoke in blunt terms about U.S. bullying — saying it viewed Mexico as its patio trasero, or back yard — and was compelled to resign by Vicente Fox. He then, in 2004, gave details about some aspects of U.S. surveillance sabotaging the efforts of the other members of the Security Council to hammer out a compromise to avert the invasion of Iraq, saying the U.S. was “violating the U.N. headquarters covenant.” In 2005, he tragically died in a car crash.  

“Official Secrets” director Gavin Hood is perhaps more right than he realizes when he says that his depiction of the Gun case is like the “tip of an iceberg,” pointing to other deceits surrounding the Iraq war. His record with political films has been uneven till now. Peace activist David Swanson derided his film on drones, “Eye in the Sky.”

In a showing of “Official Secrets” in D.C., Hood depicted those who backed the Iraq war as now having been discredited. But that’s simply untrue. Now leading presidential candidate Joe Biden — who not only voted for the Iraq invasion, but presided over rigged hearings on in 2002 — has recently repeatedly falsified his record on Iraq at presidential debates with hardly a murmur. Nor is he alone, those refusing to be held accountable for their Iraq war lies include not just Bush and Cheney, but John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi

Biden has actually faulted Bush for not doing enough to get United Nations approval for the Iraq invasion. In fact, as the Gun case helps show, the legitimate case for invasion was non-existent and the Bush administration had done virtually everything both legal and illegal to get United Nations authorization. 

Most everyone attempts to distance themselves from the Iraq invasion, but it has effectively enveloped our culture. The wars it spawned, as in Syria, and Iraq itself, and arguably elsewhere, continue with minimal attention or protest. The U.S. regularly threatens Iran, Venezuela and other countries. The journalists who pushed and propagandized in favor of the Iraq invasion are prosperous and atop major news organizations — the editor who argued most strongly against publication of the NSA document at The Observer, Kamal Ahmed, is now editorial director of BBC News.

After the U.S. and Britain failed to get a second resolution before the invasion, they got a resolution after the invasion effectively accepting the U.S. as the Occupying Power in Iraq. Documents leaked by Edward Snowden and published by The Intercept in 2016 boasted of how the NSA “during the wind-up to the Iraq War ‘played a critical role’ in the adoption of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The work with that customer was a resounding success.”

The British government — unlike the U.S. government — did ultimately produce a study ostensibly around the decision-making leading to the invasion of Iraq, the Chilcot Report in 2016. But that report — called “devastating” by the New York Times— incredibly made no mention of the Gun case. (See release from 2016: “Chilcot Report Avoids Smoking Gun.”)

Some have said that what Gun did was ineffectual, that it didn’t stop the invasion. Some have said the same about the quasi-global Feb. 15, 2003 protests against the invasion. It’s an absurd, rotten notion. The solution to some truth telling not being enough to stop the war, as Dan Ellsberg would put it, is more truth telling. The solution to some powerful protests not being enough to stop the war is more effective protests. Had there been coordinated global protests beginning in September 2002 for example, rather than February 2003, that could well have made all the difference. If other numerous government officials had done what Gun did, and spoken the truth when it mattered most, that could have made the difference.

And, as these wars and lies continue, it still may. 

A version of this article first appeared on Consortium News and at FAIR.

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Sam Husseini is senior analyst at the Institute for Public Accuracy.