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PlaNet News & Views

Posted on 24-6-13

Bush's Foiled NSA Blackmail Scheme
By Dennis J Bernstein, Consortium News, 23 June 2013
In early 2003, as the U.S. and British governments were seeking
international acquiescence to their aggressive war on Iraq, an unexpected
cog throw into the propaganda machine was the disclosure that the National
Security Agency was spying on UN Security Council members in search of
blackmail material.
The revelation received little attention in the mainstream U.S. news media,
which was almost fully onboard the pro-war bandwagon, but the disclosure
received wide international attention and stopped the blackmail scheme. U.S.
President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were forced
to abandon a UN resolution and invade Iraq with a ragtag "coalition of the
Several months later, the identity of the leaker was revealed, a young woman
named Katharine Gun who worked as a linguist at the NSA's UK counterpart,
British Government Communications Headquarters. Gun lost her job and was
charged under British secrecy laws, but the case was dropped because the
court would have required the Blair government to disclose that it also had
twisted the arms of legal advisers to extract an opinion endorsing the
Now, a decade later, Edward Snowden, a young American systems analyst
working for the NSA, has leaked documents revealing a global surveillance
network and prompted another international debate - about government spying
vs. personal privacy. Katharine Gun joined Pacifica's "Flashpoints"
host Dennis J. Bernstein to discuss both cases.
Dennis J. Bernstein: What exactly was your position when you decided to leak
a certain document?
Katharine Gun: My title was linguist analyst. I was a Mandarin Chinese
speaker. We translated interceptions and produced reports for the various
customers of GCHQ, which are normally the Foreign Office or MI-5 and MI-6.
DB: Can you explain the document you released and the significance of the
KG: It was released at the end of January 2003, just before the invasion of
Iraq. I saw an email that had been sent from the NSA to GCHQ. It was a
request for GCHQ to help the NSA intercept the communications of six nations
that sat on the Security Council at that time. It was to intercept their
domestic and office telecoms in order to obtain all the information we could
about the delegates, which the U.S. could then use to achieve goals
favorable to U.S. interests. They called for the whole gamut of information,
which made me think they would potentially use the information to blackmail
or bribe the U.N. delegates.
DB: This bugging took place at the United Nations?
KG: Presumably, yes. Or it could involve the United Nations headquarters or
also their domestic residence.
DB: The idea was to get the necessary information one way or the other to
influence the key members to support the U.S. quest for war in Iraq?
KG: Yes. At the time, if you were not working for the intelligence services
or the foreign offices of the U.S. or U.K. you would probably assume that
the goal of [President George W.] Bush and [Prime Minister Tony] Blair at
that time was to work diplomatically to reach a solution.
But we now know, after several leaks over the years about the run-up to the
war in Iraq, that war was the agenda all along. When I saw the email it made
me think, "This is evidence that war is the agenda." That's why I decided
the public needed to know.
DB: GCHQ is the British Government Communications Headquarters, the
equivalent to the NSA [National Security Agency]. You were working there in
the lead-up to the Iraq War. Can you remind us what governments were bugged?
KG: Six nations, smallish countries: Angola, Cameroon, and Pakistan, I
think. Mexico was mentioned, and possibly Chile as well. They were countries
that are generally not known for their big powerful positions at the U.N.
DB: What went through your mind leading up to the decision to leak this
information? This big decision changed history a bit. How did you make this
courageous decision that also changed your own life?
KG: I was very concerned. I had informed myself about the realities of Iraq
and the situation there because I grew up during the first Gulf War and the
following years of sanctions. It was in the back of my mind that Iraq was a
country that was virtually destroyed, and that the people were living in
impoverished conditions. It made me think that another attack on them would
not be fair and justified because there was nothing about Iraq that was a
threat to either the U.S. or the U.K.
So when I saw the email and realized what was going on behind closed doors
was an attempt to get the U.N. to authorize what would then have become a
pre-emptive strike on a country, I thought the public should know about this
because it angered me.
DB: What happened after you made this information available? What happened
with your position? Were you intimidated, attacked?
KG: Initially I tried to remain anonymous, but when I realized the
information revealed in the newspaper at the time was identifiable to GCHQ,
I decided I didn't want to lead a double life at GCHQ and pretend I had
nothing to do with it. I confided to my line-manager and said it was my
leak. Then I was arrested under suspicion of breaking the Official Secrets
Act, questioned, and released on bail for eight months.
In November 2003, much to our surprise, they decided to charge me, despite
having waited so long. After discussions with my legal team, which included
Liberty, an organization very similar to the U.S. ACLU, we decided I would
plead non-guilty, because I personally felt that although I did the act, I
didn't feel guilt, because I didn't feel I had done anything wrong. Our
defense would have been to establish the defense of necessity, which is not
yet tested in a court of law. My legal team then asked for all the legal
advice leading up the war, and at that point, the prosecution decided to
drop all charges against me.
DB: What do you think made them decide to prosecute you, and what
information made them drop the charges? Were they trying to backpedal?
Were they trying to make sure no other folks in positions like you would do
it again?
KG: It's speculation on my part because obviously they haven't disclosed.
I suspect one of the reasons they charged me was to make an example of my
actions to try to deter people from it. On the other hand, when they dropped
the charges, I suspect there may have been a variety of reasons.
When we asked for the legal advice from the then-Attorney General, at that
time his legal advice had not been fully disclosed.
During the run-up to the war, Blair asked for legal advice, obviously. The
first draft was about 13 pages long. The language was very cautious - it
didn't say there was a definite reason for war. There were many legal terms
of caution, but at some point Blair was told the legal advice was not good
enough. He needed a watertight case. The Attorney General then re-drafted
his advice, and condensed it to a single page that was then issued to the
House of Commons.
That is what persuaded all the MPs in the House of Commons to vote for
Britain's involvement in the war. Eventually information came out, not from
myself, but from other means and it became apparent that the legal advice
had not been at all watertight to start with.
DB: Daniel Ellsberg said your most important and courageous leak is the only
one made in time to avert an imminent possible war. Was your desire to avert
KG: Yes, I was hoping the British ministers would see the truth and question
the actions of Blair and the secret negotiations he was having with Bush at
the time. I wanted more transparency on the issue. I wanted people to
question what was going on and to generally challenge this bandwagon for a
preemptive strike against a country that was already very impoverished and
no threat to anybody whatsoever.
DB: Did you ever hear from folks who based on your revelations, learned they
were bugged?
KG: No.
DB: So there were no thank yous coming across from that part of the world?
KG: No. At the time of the leak, my name didn't come out. Eight months later
my name was made public.
DB: Did it change your life?
KG: I lost my job. The secure, full-time, long-term employment was no longer
possible. That has made an impact, primarily financially, on my life and my
family's life.
DB: We are now seeing extraordinary NSA leaks from Edward Snowden in the
British Guardian. What are your thoughts on this?
KG: I think Snowden is probably is a lot more clued-up than I was at the
time. My leak was a single issue. Snowden has had a long period of time
working within the U.S. intelligence services. He's obviously a very
technically savvy professional. I admire him for taking this tremendous
step, which he thought out very carefully and methodically. He has made some
very good points. These kinds of issues should be in the public domain
because it involves innocent members of the public. We, the public, should
be able to have a measure of a say in these matters.
DB: We hear that people like you, who were leaking before the war, and
Snowden now, are putting people's lives in jeopardy, endangering the people.
We hear that secrecy is necessary to prevent terrorist attacks, and that
many have been prevented by this kind of secrecy, investigation, wiretapping
and bugging that's going on now.
KG: There is absolutely no evidence that my leaks in any way endangered
anybody else.
DB: But you were accused of that.
KG: Yes, they love to throw accusations around, there's no doubt about that.
But in my case, the majority of views supported my actions. In Snowden's
case, people who have a fair and just understanding of the issues at-large
are supportive of his actions, as they would be of Private Manning, who is
currently on trial.
DB: Did you lose any friends or associates, over this?
KG: Ironically, not really. Many of my friends and colleagues from GCHQ have
also left GCHQ, partly to progress in their professions. They didn't see
much chance for their linguistic skills progressing much further within GCHQ
and I continue to be in touch with them.
DB: If you had it all to do over again, would you?
KG: That's a difficult question. Now I'm married and have a child. I would
hope that I would still do it, but perhaps I would be more savvy about how I
did it. Snowden was very clued-up and seems to know exactly what he should
be doing - how to stay safe and keep out of the way of being unjustly
arrested and tried without due process of law.
DB: Your language skills. Are you using them now?
KG: Not now. I'm only fluent in Mandarin Chinese. I speak some Japanese and
am now trying to learn Turkish.
DB: That may in handy in the next decade or so. Thank you for talking to us.