Official Secrets

Burnt my trees
Jailed my sun
Killed my children
And drank their blood
Then ground their bones at McDonnell-Douglas
Only to offer them back to me
As a present
In a flour sack
To torture me all the rest of my life
This is America!

– Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish

In March 2003 I sat in a miserable hotel room as far from Iraq as you could get. Outside was wet and cold. I watched Shock and Awe on TV for three days. Much had been made of the lawfulness or otherwise of the invasion and subsequent occupation of a sovereign state.

Iraq, the wealthiest country in the region, was at war with the west. Saddam had misread Bush senior’s messages and taken Kuwait prior to the first gulf war. During the US invasion called Desert Storm there was terrible carnage of innocent people fleeing Kuwait, something an American pilot called a ‘turkey shoot’. Those images had a lasting effect on the young woman who leaked the document.

Now Bush Junior with Blair at his side were invading Iraq to achieve regime change. None of the players, Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, George W, Tony Blair, John Howard, Condolezza Rice and Colin Powell have ever been charged for lying about Saddam having Weapons of Mass Destruction. The protagonists used their own weapons of mass destruction to kill over a million people, including many of their own.

This week the Iraqi Prime Minister had to resign for failure to provide basic services to ordinary Iraqis: food, electricity, sewerage and water. The country is a failed state mired in foreign meddling; whereas, under Saddam, it was a thriving secular state. How could this have happened?

Sixteen years ago, on Sun 2 Mar 2003 to be precise, journalists, Martin Bright, Ed Vulliamy and Peter Beaumont published an article in the Observer called “Revealed: US dirty tricks to win vote on Iraq war”. They claimed that a secret document detailed an American plan to bug phones and emails of key Security Council members to collect personal info to bribe them into voting for war. This was prior to Shock and Awe.  

The woman who released the documents worked for a British spy agency. She said that there was no proof of WMDs and that neither country had a lawful justification for going to war. Her attempt to stop the war fell on deaf ears in Washington and London but millions came out on the street to stop the war. This was long before we heard revelations by WikiLeaks that US helicopter pilots were shooting ordinary people on the streets of Baghdad.

Prior to war Tony Blair faced a no-confidence motion in the House of Commons. Attempts were made to help him survive his own parliament’s disapproval. The local press failed to call him out for doctoring the case for war. Now Hollywood and British filmmakers wish to tell the story, but it is 16 years too late.

Apparently a young translator at GCHQ, Katharine Gun, leaked a secret email revealing what was called at the time an illegal ‘dirty tricks’ campaign to fix the UN vote. A new film, Official Secrets, tells the story of her actions and subsequent arrest. As the build-up to war continued, Gun felt increasing dismay. She couldn’t shake the ‘indelible’ images of the ‘turkey shoot’ of retreating Iraqis on the Highway of Death during the first Gulf War in 1991, the road out of Kuwait strewn with burnt-out vehicles and charred bodies. Harsh sanctions against Iraq were already causing many deaths.

Gun was sitting at her computer in GCHQ when an email arrived from one Frank Koza, chief of staff at the ‘regional targets’ division of the US National Security Agency. The email wasn’t even meant for her. It was intended for someone else but had been distributed to everyone in her section. She found the contents ‘absolutely stunning’.

SMH Wednesday 4 Dec 2019

The Americans had sent GCHQ a request to spy on the UN ambassadors of the six countries with the important, perhaps swing, votes. Gun believed that this would be illegal, a breach of the Vienna Convention governing diplomatic relations. More than that, Koza wasn’t just asking for information on what these ambassadors and their governments were planning, he seemed to want dirt. Sixteen years on, the words are still seared into memory. Asking for ‘the whole gamut of information from domestic and office communications’ was for her a demand for blackmail material… ‘blackmail to manipulate their vote, to sanction a war.

It was a Friday afternoon. She went home and stewed about the email for the whole weekend. Finally, she called someone (she has never named) who had connections to the media, telling them: ‘I have something explosive, I think it has the potential to avert a war with Iraq.’ She went back into work on Monday, printed the email, folded it neatly and put it in her bag. Nerves tingling, she went home. The moment she walked out of GCHQ, she was breaking the Official Secrets Act, perhaps committing an act of treason. A month later, the Observer splashed the story over its front page. ‘Revealed: US dirty tricks to win vote on Iraq war.’ She became ‘the spy who tried to stop a war’.

Brisbane Protest against Iraq War 2003

Gun was charged with breach of the official secrets acts and her lawyers decided to use a necessity defence against the charge, that being her action was aimed to save lives at a time of imminent threat. Such a defence no longer works as the people who broke into US spy base, Pine Gap, will attest. At the final moment, after Gun had pleaded ‘not guilty’, the Director of Public Prosecutions withdrew and Gun was ordered to go free. The liberal institutions had put the analyst/spy through torment for over 12 months to save the government from losing face as inspectors discovered that Iraq had no WMDs and the excuse for war was therefore baseless.

From my hotel room in Northern Tasmania where I saw repeated coverage of the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, arguing for a second resolution at the UN. Powell span a story of mobile biological weapons factories in trucks and intercepted radio messages about chemical weapons already deployed in the field.

As for Bush, Blair and Howard, I am reminded of the charges at Nuremberg.

‘… murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other
inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.’
– Article 6 (c) of international agreement on Crimes against Humanity.

Ian Curr
3 Dec 2019

One response to “Official Secrets

  1. Gareth William Smith

    Lest we forget the mind boggling crimes committed by our ever so respectable elected leaders. “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” (Santayana).


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