Official Secrets – a true story about government lying

A few Americans may know the name Valerie Plame. It is highly unlikely Americans know the name Katharine Gun. But, a few Brits might. They are both heroes for calling their respective governments on the carpet for the same event – the illegal invasion by the US, UK and its allies into Iraq.

More on Plame later. There is an excellent movie released in 2019 (directed by Gavin Hood) called “Official Secrets” starring Keira Knightley as Gun. But, who is she and why is she a hero? Katharine Gun was an analyst for the UK’s GCHQ, the UK counterpart to the US’ NSA. She read a memo from a NSA department head that asked the UK to join the US to spy on other members of the UN Security Council to pressure them into voting in favor of invading Iraq. In other words, the US wanted the UK to help them lie to support a war where innocent people would die and British (and American) soldiers would be at risk.

Now, Americans likely do not know a seven-year British inquiry investigated the Iraq invasion beginnings and found that Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George Bush misled the British people about the rationale to invade Iraq. But, let’s scroll back to right before the invasion when Bush was seeking support from the UN Security Council.

At that time, Peter Goldsmith, the UK attorney general, held the position that unless authorized by the UN Security Council, the invasion would be illegal. But, after meeting with the Americans in Washington, he changed his opinion to rely on the fringe position of using the 1991 UN Security Council OK for the Gulf War. In other words, if the UN Security Council did not agree this time, the US would invade under this pretense and that is what occurred.

Before Goldsmith’s change of mind, Gun released the memo to someone who shared it with a news reporter played by Matt Bright. Then, she turned herself in. Gun violated the Official Secrets act, but she said our spying is supposed to make our citizens safer, not used to lie to them for an unjust war. She took a great risk and was charged with a crime after about a year of anguished waiting. *

Ben Emmerson, her attorney, played ably by Ralph Fiennes, built a case on her breaking that law out of “necessity” to save British lives which was a permissible defense. Knowing the Deputy AG, Elizabeth Wilmshurst (played by Tansin Greig), resigned over the AG’s change in posture and that documents of her resignation and Goldsmith’s council to Blair codified their concerns, Emmerson requested the files and Gun pled innocent.

Gun could have pled guilty and received a shorter sentence, but she risked it all to make the Blair government defend itself. Then, the surprise came in court. The government dropped the charges rather than have to release any incriminating documents. The Blair government did not want to reveal its decision-making process.

Gun’s actions were applauded as were Valerie Plame’s. Plame was a CIA operative whose husband, Joseph Wilson, was a former ambassador. Her story is told in the movie “Fair Game,” with Naomi Watts playing Plame and Sean Penn playing Wilson.

Plame asked her husband to use his connections to trace a lead on a supplier to Saddam Hussein’s alleged WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction). Wilson found the supplier to be unrelated to any WMD supplies, so he was unable to confirm this hypothesis. Yet, his report was misused and said he did find a connection. Wilson was angered at the betrayal of his work and wrote an op-ed in The New York Times saying so.

In an half-handed attempt to save face and denigrate Wilson, VP Dick Cheney’s staff member, Scooter Libby, outed Plame as a CIA agent in the press. This is a crime, of which Libby was found guilty and served jail time. To date, Libby is the only person to serve jail time for the invasion of Iraq. Plame testified to Congress about the secretive WMD research led by the Cheney folks and the efforts to discredit her and her husband.

Gun and Plame are heroes. 4,600 American and British soldiers died in Iraq with over 32,000 injured. The estimates of Iraqi deaths are between 150,000 and 1 million. And, we still have a presence in Iraq sixteen years later. Hussein may be gone, but the Middle East remains an unsolvable and unstable problem and the US reputation is viewed very unfavorably by more than Iraqis.

Gun said it best. I work for my country and its people. When a government lies to its people for unjust causes, she felt she had to speak up. She said she would do it again. Let me add one more thought – leaders must exhaust all options before they send its citizens into harms way. They owe it to them. Lying to enable war is beyond poor stewardship. In this case, it was illegal.

* London’s The Observer published the memo in a headline article after confirming its authenticity through several channels, which are portrayed in the movie. Yet, it made a simple, but huge mistake. An editor ran the article through spell-check and the system corrected American spellings of words like “favorable” and “recognize” with the British spellings of “favourable” and “recognise.” This change was seized upon by the Drudge Report who published the memo was fake, discrediting the article. All interviews with the reporter were canceled at that point. Per the movie, this was a contributing cause for Gun’s admission of leaking the document. She wanted people to know and recognized she was putting herself in jeopardy.

16 thoughts on “Official Secrets – a true story about government lying

    • Jeff, in the movie Gun said governments come and go. My loyalty is to the British citizens. As I watched this, I thought of the whistleblowers and diplomats testimony that said they were concerned about that the actions of the the current president. And, they got beat up by Trump toadies. Keith

      • Yep, loyalty to him is paramount in his little world. We the American people are mere pawns in his narcissistic reality TV show. Sad beyond belief

      • Jeff, we are all pawns in Trump land, including his loyalists. He truly is Alice’s Queen of Hearts. I wish SNL would do a skit with Trump as Queen. It would unnerve him. Keith

  1. I knew of Valerie Plame, but until just now I had not heard of Katharine Gun. These two women are both heroes. I despair that our governments appear to believe that the people of the U.S. and UK have no right to know what is being done by those who are elected to represent them. I despair that it seems to be the ‘norm’ for governments to lie to us, to keep us in the dark, just as Trump has now done about Russia paying the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers. Are We the People considered too stupid, or too irrelevant? This is infuriating, and more so for knowing that it continues yet today in both countries.

    As for Western nations trying to solve the problems of the Middle East … they cannot, for they do not understand the history or the culture of the Middle East. They are trying to apply western standards to nations that do not ascribe to, nor will they ever ascribe to, those standards.

    • Jill, there were too many signals that were ignored. Navy veteran and Senator Webb’s speech which said if we invade Iraq, be prepared to be there 30 years. Colin Powell’s being drafted to implore the UN as he was more trusted, the venom toward those who asked questions and the urgency to invade. As we later learned, VP Dick Cheney had a heavy hand in this and he is far from being a choir boy,

      I mention the Drudge Report in my footnote. The Observer was in the right, but the spell check changes just knocked the wind out of their sails.

      See my note to Jeff who was lamenting the issue in current terms. Keith

      • Agreed … and what’s frightening is that the same thing could, or possibly is, taking place today. Cheney is and has always been a jerk.

        I think it is ludicrous to kill a report because of the spelling!

        And yes, future whistleblowers will no doubt think and re-think before coming forward, thanks to the treatment that public servants of good conscience received under Trump & Co.

      • Jill, what is so scary about Cheney is he knew how to work the system to do things. He is corrupt, but was sneakier about it than the incumbent president whose corruption is obvious for those who care to look. Keith

  2. Keith on a lighter note, gosh following American politics is tough for us colonials. From the above “…… corrected American spellings of words like “favorable” and “recognize” with the British spellings of “favourable” and “recognize.” Try as I might, I’m blessed if I can see the difference in American recognize and the British recognize. Help!!!!!

  3. There is a very fine dividing line when it comes to whistle blowing involving national policy and security.
    Just releasing your nation’s secret doings when they are no worse than anyone else’s and putting your nationals and others who trust you at risk is a questionable one and I have grave doubts on the validity. But that’s me and my Realpolitik outlook.
    In the case of both Gun and Plame they made the right call because they were warning of a disaster, perpetrated by folk who were on one messianic trip too far (and is some cases who had assiduously avoided possible front line military service for their own nation back in 1965-1975)

    • Roger, well said. Emmerson, in the movie, applauded her actions as she knew she would get in trouble and did it anyway. Part of the reason for turning herself in, per the movie, is her colleagues were being interviewed and she did not want any stains on their record.

      By the way, I just watched the end of the movie “Red Joan” starring Judi Dench based on a true story. I might write about this one once I see the whole thing, but her actions were even more daring, and probably would not garner the same level of sympathy from the public. Keith

      • Thank you Keith.
        The premise in Red Joan highlights a very tough call and one which raises points and ramifications you can discuss and argue about for….possibly ever.
        There is a strong argument for ‘levelling the playing field’ .
        As us of a ‘certain age’ know the spectre of Nuclear War loomed heavy. And so it can be argued both sides having ‘The Bomb’ stopped NATO and the Warsaw Pact going head to head in Europe and starting off a conventional WWIII.
        The ramifications are always there though. Thus whereas ‘we’ stared at ‘them’ in Europe and did little dances. Both sides exported their wars into the Third World and were content to make things as difficult for the other as possible.
        The moral of the story being…..
        Don’t ask me. The moral is bound to raise another handful of questions.

      • Roger, you raise interesting points. What scares me most about nuclear options is when you have tempestuous, immature person in leadership like the one in the US White House. Plus, he has run off the saner minds who were strong enough to challenge him some. Keith

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