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‘Spy Who Tried to Stop the War’ Tells Students Her Story

Former spy and Iraq war whistle-blower Katharine Gun came to AU along with several former spies, top journalists, and Vietnam-era whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg for a symposium on ethics versus perceived global security needs.

It was part of a contemporary history class created by the history department’s Peter Kuznick, Oliver Stone’s America, which looks at historical topics, such as the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam, in light of their presentation by controversial filmmaker Stone.

Gun was a translator for British intelligence who leaked an e-mail revealing a U.S. plan to spy on diplomats in the United Nations as part of a push to secure their votes to authorize the invasion of Iraq. She was charged with violating Britain’s Official Secrets Act, but the charges were dropped before going to trial.

The e-mail came from a U.S. National Security Agency official, but the incident, though front-page news in Britain, gained little press in the United States. It was an incident that, Kuznick said, “a supine and brain-dead corporate media chose to ignore.”

Gun flew from London for the class with her ten-week-old baby. She told the story of how her “eyes just got wider and wider with disbelief” when she read the e-mail. “I believed what Tony Blair and George Bush were saying publically, that they were trying to find a diplomatic solution,” she said.

The secret e-mail showed that, in fact, “they had agreed what they wanted was war with Iraq. They were lying to us.”

Though she knew she could go to jail for leaking the e-mail, she hoped that it would outrage the public enough to stop the war before it began.

A hero, or naive?

Ellsberg, who leaked documents on Vietnam War decision making known as the Pentagon Papers, praised Gun as his “hero” for trying to prevent a war beforehand, which he hadn’t done. He told the audience of students that if they’re ever in such a position, “Don’t do what I did— wait until the war was started, wait until the bombs are falling.”

A different viewpoint came from the executive director of the International Spy Museum, former CIA operative Peter Earnest. “I certainly would not challenge anybody’s act of conscience,” he said. Yet what she did was an “extreme leap,” he said.

Gun was a 27-year-old translator with barely two years in the spy agency, but he had to assume, he said, that she’d been translating top-secret documents and recordings obtained through spying. As a member of the intelligence community, she should have understood the importance of secrecy, he said.

Pathways exist to protest and express concerns internally without jeopardizing operations, he said. “To decide that the organization is utterly bereft of conscience is a big leap,” he said, that showed her naivete and lack of realism.

Retired CIA officer Ray McGovern disagreed. “We have something called a conscience,” he said. He’d seen officers who tried to work within the agency during the Vietnam era be “diddled by the system” as their protests produced “zip, nada, nothing.”

The extensive panel also included journalist and editor Martin Bright, who told of his initial skepticism and final decision to print the e-mail; journalist Norman Solomon; and journalist Marcia Mitchell, coauthor of The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War: Katharine Gun and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion.

The talk was part of the class, but open to the public.