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.