Back at the beginning of March 2003, the US and UK governments were engaged in a huge effort at the UN Security Council to win support for a second resolution that would authorise a war against Iraq. As part of that effort the National Security Agency of the USA sent out a memo marked Top Secret (and which can be read here) which was received and approved by the UK’s own surveillance centre at GCHQ in Cheltenham calling for efforts to spy on the members of the Security Council so that they could obtain “the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals”. It was in effect authorising the spooks to surreptitiously obtain information that could be used to blackmail members of the UN Security Council into supporting the Iraq war.
Official Secrets deals with the story of one incredibly brave recipient of that email at GCHQ. Katharine Gun, a young expert in Mandarin, was increasingly concerned at the UK government’s attempts to deceive the public into supporting the Iraq war. Understanding the full implications of the NSA request, she decided to leak the contents of the memo in the hope that it would reach an investigative journalist and just perhaps create a counter-reaction that would possibly halt the slide to war.
On 2nd March 2003, the Observer (the Sunday sister paper to the Guardian) published a front page story about the memo headlined “Revealed: US dirty tricks to win vote on Iraq war”. An uproar followed and an investigation was launched at GCHQ into who had leaked the memo.
The film shows Katharine – anguished at how her own colleagues were now under suspicion – going into the investigator’s office and admitting that it was she that was responsible.
The UK’s then Prime Minister, Tony Blair desperately needed a second UN resolution to help gain support amongst the UK public and the armed forces for a war against Iraq. We have since discovered that the Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, had said that war would be illegal without a second UN Security Council resolution and to act otherwise would open the UK armed forces personnel to possible war crimes investigations. Of course, we know what happened then. Lord Goldsmith was sent to the US for talks with his counterparts there and came back and altered his advice to the Prime Minister to now say a war would be legal on the basis of an earlier 1991 UN resolution. As one character observes of Lord Goldsmith:
“He fucking caved just when his country needed him the most.”
It was the war that we could not stop. Katharine is quoted shortly after as saying:
“I’ve watched Blair with his smug smile and his sterile speeches that tell us nothing of what it must feel like to be a child in Iraq right now. I’m not sorry that I tried to stop him. I’m only sorry that I failed.”
Katharine was arrested and charged for breaching the Official Secrets Act. The film makes plain the huge courage and integrity it must have taken to do what she did. It forces us to ask ourselves just how many of us would really be prepared to risk our own freedom and suffer jail-time to try and expose the government’s lies in order to try and save the lives of others. The government is shown vindictively punishing Katharine by trying to deport her Turkish/Kurdish Muslim husband.
The then political editor of the Observer, Kamal Ahmed (now Editorial Director of the BBC) – and who was a key contact/mouthpiece of Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell – is shown as trying to rubbish the authenticity of Katharine’s leaked memo in order to try and prevent publication. Ahmed screams “Hitler Diaries!” – a reference to how the Sunday Times had been embarrassed by the publication of the Hitler Diaries in the 1980s which were subsequently found to be fake.
The then Director of the Crown Prosecution Service, Ken MacDonald (now “Baron MacDonald of River Glaven”) is shown as abasing his office to do the bidding of the government and intelligence agencies.
Not everyone bent the knee to power though. The human rights organisation Liberty is shown as assisting Katharine to defend herself against the charges against her and Ralph Fiennes puts in a splendid appearance as Ben Emmerson the QC that defended her at trial.
I won’t give away the ending – though some of you may recall what happened at the trial in 2004. All I will say is that Official Secrets is a gripping true story and is brilliantly told with a steely central performance from Keira Knightley. This is a movie that should surely be made compulsory viewing in History classes at school in order to help our children to learn to develop their own critical thinking skills and be prepared to question orders.