by Bianca Duca
The film Official Secrets released in October last year, starring Keira Knightley in the role of a young GCHQ mandarin specialist, plays as a visual aid into understanding what whistleblowing and its repercussions are. The courage of one person changed the history of millions others: “Truth always matters,” claims Katharine Gun.
In many aspects of the law, including that of freedom of expression, protected by Article 10, ECHR, the English courts seem to rule in favour of the government over the individual’s human rights. ‘Proportionate and necessary in a democratic society’ is a phrase that mostly benefits officials in power, who like to invoke the protection of national security. Article 10 suggests that freedom of expression should prevail, so it permits the world to live with a sense of equality. There are numerous famous cases in which the state abused its power, exercising the Official Secrets Act in the UK and the Espionage Act and the Computer Fraud Abuse Act in the US.
Such an example is Katharine Gun, a former GCHQ analyst and linguist. In 2003, a 28-year-old Mandarin specialist working for GCHQ, the government surveillance centre in Cheltenham, received an email asking her and her colleagues, to help in an intelligence “surge”. This was intended to gather sensible information on UN members through surveillance and secure a UN resolution to send troops into Iraq. The event: ‘War, Journalism and Whistleblowers:15 years after Katharine Gun’s truth telling on the verge of the Iraq War’ at Birkbeck University, which I attended in 2018, endorsed the large benefit whistleblowing brings to civil society.
The panel consisted of whistleblowers from the UK and US, who each suffered a great injustice, as a result of the wrongdoings of their own governments and nations. Katharine explained, the memo ,which came from Frank Koza, the chief of staff at the ‘regional targets’ of the NSA, was a direct order to the employees of a UK security agency to gather “the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favourable to US goals or to head off surprise”.
She leaked the memo to the press, hoping it would alarm the British public and consequently, the British government will intervene and stop the war. She was wrong, but her act of bravery served as a beacon of hope for other whistleblowers. Although she didn’t achieve what she’d hoped for, the story created a considerable amount of controversy. Chile and Mexico were now watching, both over US and UK. George W Bush and Tony Blair’s plan of invading Irak with the consensus of the UN was now unattainable.
Some might argue, her case wouldn’t fit into this narrative and the reason for that is that she effectively won her case. That her defence of necessity was upheld by the court, prompting the Crown to drop charges against her. In other words, her case is an illustration of the potential limits to the absolute powers of the Official Secrets Act, but the tears in her eyes spoke differently. “Still no regrets,” she said.
Blowing the whistle is often described as being brutally criminalised under the Official Secrets Act and used against those who speak truth to power or media. It is seen as an act of betrayal, that can get you charged with treason, espionage; that can get you labelled as traitor or terrorist sympathiser. There is a war on journalists, activists and those who reveal information that the public has the right to know, but the government wants kept secret. Is the Official Secrets Act intended to protect vital state secrets or a weapon against those who speak truth to power? To Katharine Gun, as Daniel Ellsberg said: “I salute you! You’re my hero!”