Katharine Gun

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Katharine Teresa Gun (née Harwood, born 1974) is a British translator who worked for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), a British intelligence agency.[1] In 2003, she leaked top-secret information to the press concerning illegal activities by the United States in its push for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Some of these activities include the US National Security Agency (NSA)'s eavesdropping operations on diplomats from countries tasked with passing a second United Nations resolution on the invasion of Iraq.[2]

Early life[edit]

Gun was born in Taiwan to British parents. Her upbringing later led her to describe herself as a "third culture kid".[3] After spending her childhood in Taiwan where she attended Morrison Academy, Gun studied Japanese and Chinese at Durham University in England.[3][4] Finding it difficult to find work as a linguist, Gun applied to GCHQ after reading a newspaper advertisement for the organisation. Gun had previously been unaware of GCHQ, later saying that "I didn't have much idea about what they did...I was going into it pretty much blind. Most people do."[3]

The leak[edit]

Gun's regular job at GCHQ in Cheltenham was to translate Mandarin Chinese into English.[3] While at work at GCHQ on 31 January 2003, Gun read an email from Frank Koza, the chief of staff at the "regional targets" division of the American intelligence agency, the National Security Agency.[5]

Koza's email requested aid in a secret and illegal operation to bug the United Nations offices of six nations: Angola, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, and Pakistan. These were the six "swing nations" on the UN Security Council that could determine whether the UN approved the invasion of Iraq.[6] The plan allegedly violated the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which regulates global diplomacy.

Gun was outraged by the email, and took a printed copy of it home with her.[3] After contemplating the email over the weekend, Gun gave the email to a friend who was acquainted with journalists.[3] Gun heard no more of the email until Sunday 2 March, when she saw it reproduced on the front page of The Observer newspaper.[3] Less than a week after the Observer story, on Wednesday 5 March, Gun had confessed to her line manager at GCHQ that she had leaked the email, and was arrested. In a BBC interview with Jeremy Paxman, she said that she had not raised the matter with staff counsellors as she "honestly didn't think that would have had any practical effect."[7] Gun spent a night in police custody and was subsequently charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act eight months later.[3] The case against Gun was dropped after the prosecution declined to offer any evidence. Gun later embarked on a postgraduate degree course in global ethics at Birmingham University.[3]

Court case[edit]

On 13 November 2003, Gun was charged with an offence under section 1 of the Official Secrets Act 1989.[8] Her case became a cause célèbre among activists, and many people stepped forward to urge the government to drop the case. Among them were Reverend Jesse Jackson, Daniel Ellsberg (the US government official who leaked the Pentagon Papers), and actor Sean Penn, who described her as "a hero of the human spirit". Gun planned to plead "not guilty", saying in her defence that she acted to prevent imminent loss of life in a war she considered illegal.

The case came to court on 25 February 2004. Within half an hour, the case was dropped because the prosecution declined to offer evidence.[9] The reasons for the prosecution dropping the case are unclear. The day before the trial, Gun's defence team had asked the government for any records of advice about the legality of the war that it had received during the run-up to the war. A full trial might have exposed any such documents to public scrutiny as the defence were expected to argue that trying to stop an illegal act (that of an illegal war of aggression) trumped Gun's obligations under the Official Secrets Act 1989. Speculation was rife in the media that the prosecution service had bowed to political pressure to drop the case so that any such documents would remain secret.[9] However, a Government spokesman said that the decision to drop the case had been made before the defence's demands had been submitted.[9] The Guardian newspaper had reported plans to drop the case the previous week.[10] On the day of the court case, Gun said "I'm just baffled in the 21st century we as human beings are still dropping bombs on each other as a means to resolve issues."[9] In 2019 The Guardian stated the case was dropped "when the prosecution realised that evidence would emerge ... that even British government lawyers believed the invasion was unlawful."[11]

Later life[edit]

Gun received the Sam Adams Award for 2003 and was supported in her case by the UK human rights pressure group Liberty and in the US by the Institute for Public Accuracy. Following the dropping of the case, Liberty commented "One wonders whether disclosure in this criminal trial might have been a little too embarrassing."[9]

Two years after her trial, Katharine Gun wrote an article entitled "Iran: Time to Leak",[12] which asked whistleblowers to make public information about plans for a potential war against Iran. She urged "those in a position to do so to disclose information which relates to this planned aggression; legal advice, meetings between the White House and other intelligence agencies, assessments of Iran's threat level (or better yet, evidence that assessments have been altered), troop deployments and army notifications. Don't let 'the intelligence and the facts be fixed around the policy' this time."[12]

In 2019 the film Official Secrets, recounting Gun's actions in 2003 was released with Keira Knightley taking the part of Gun.[13] Also that month, Daniel Ellsberg praised the swiftness and importance of Gun taking action, saying it was in some ways more significant than his own whistleblowing on the Vietnam War.[14] Gun participated in a lengthy interview with filmmaker Gavin Hood and the journalists who broke the story of the leaked memo, Martin Bright and Ed Vulliamy, in July 2019 on the US program Democracy Now![15][16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ IPA's editor (25 February 2004). "The Katharine Gun Case". accuracy.org. Institute for Public Accuracy. Retrieved 9 July 2013.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  2. ^ "Ex-GCHQ officer 'preventing war'". BBC. 27 November 2003. Retrieved 28 December 2013.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Oliver Burkeman and Richard Norton-Taylor (26 February 2004). "The spy who wouldn't keep a secret". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 March 2014.
  4. ^ Mitchell, Marcia; Mitchell, Thomas (2008). The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion.
  5. ^ Martin Bright (3 March 2013). "Katharine Gun: Ten years on what happened to the woman who revealed dirty tricks on the UN Iraq war vote?". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 March 2014.
  6. ^ Koza, Frank. "US plan to bug Security Council: the text". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 September 2019.
  7. ^ "Katharine Gun". BBC News. 26 February 2004.
  8. ^ "Ex-GCHQ woman charged over 'leak'". BBC News. 13 November 2003. Retrieved 2 February 2016.
  9. ^ a b c d e "GCHQ translator cleared over leak". BBC News. 26 February 2004. Retrieved 2 February 2016.
  10. ^ Bright, Martin (22 February 2004). "GCHQ mother: My girl is not a traitor". the Guardian. Retrieved 12 April 2018.
  11. ^ Norton-Taylor, Richard (4 May 2019). "Leaking or briefing? Inside the world of ministers' secrets". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 May 2019.
  12. ^ a b Gun, Katharine (20 March 2006). "Iran: Time To Leak". TomPaine.com. Archived from the original on 24 April 2006.
  13. ^ Patten, Dominic (28 November 2018). "Sundance 2019: Premieres Include Harvey Weinstein Docu, Mindy Kaling, Dr. Ruth, UK Spies, Miles Davis & Ted Bundy". Deadline.com.
  14. ^ Daniel Ellsberg speaking about Katharine Gun – 2018
  15. ^ In 2003, This U.K. Whistleblower Almost Stopped the Iraq Invasion. A New Film Tells Her Story
  16. ^ 15 Years Later: How U.K. Whistleblower Katharine Gun Risked Everything to Leak a Damning Iraq War Memo

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]