True Spies: The Shocking Story Behind the Movie 'Official Secrets'


Listen to Katharine Gun’s Story | The Spy Who Said No

The real-life story behind Keira Knightley’s 2019 blockbuster Official Secrets is one of dark deception, dirty tricks, and a young British spy who tried to stop the Iraq war.

It’s the tale of whistleblower Katharine Gun, a former translator for the UK’s Government Communications HQ, who leaked a top-secret memo in 2003 on the eve of a divisive US-led war. The contents were explosive, implicating America in a blackmail plot to swing UN votes in favor of an invasion.

Two decades later, in the cold light of day, Katharine might be forgiven for doing things differently - the penalty for breaching the Official Secrets Act is up to 14 years in prison, after all. But remorse isn’t part of this modern-day saga.

I have no regrets,” Katharine told SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast


Keira Knightley in Official Secrets
Keira Knightley portrayed GCHQ whistleblower Katharine Gun in Official Secrets (2019)


Neither does the journalist who splashed the top-secret intelligence on the front page. But how did it even come to this? Why did a 28-year-old newlywed who loved her job risk prison? 


True Spies: The Shocking Story Behind the Movie 'Official Secrets'

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Listen to Katharine Gun’s Story | The Spy Who Said No

The real-life story behind Keira Knightley’s 2019 blockbuster Official Secrets is one of dark deception, dirty tricks, and a young British spy who tried to stop the Iraq war.

It’s the tale of whistleblower Katharine Gun, a former translator for the UK’s Government Communications HQ, who leaked a top-secret memo in 2003 on the eve of a divisive US-led war. The contents were explosive, implicating America in a blackmail plot to swing UN votes in favor of an invasion.

Two decades later, in the cold light of day, Katharine might be forgiven for doing things differently - the penalty for breaching the Official Secrets Act is up to 14 years in prison, after all. But remorse isn’t part of this modern-day saga.

I have no regrets,” Katharine told SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast


Keira Knightley in Official Secrets
Keira Knightley portrayed GCHQ whistleblower Katharine Gun in Official Secrets (2019)


Neither does the journalist who splashed the top-secret intelligence on the front page. But how did it even come to this? Why did a 28-year-old newlywed who loved her job risk prison? 


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The war drums beat

The saber-rattling began just after 9/11. US President George W. Bush singled out Iraq as part of an ‘axis of evil’ along with Iran and North Korea. Britain claimed Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that could be used within 45 minutes. 

Not everyone believed Iraq was enriching uranium to ramp up its nuclear arsenal, however. Katharine Gun was skeptical, as were UN delegates who wanted hard evidence.


The Spy Who Said No podcast with Katharine Gun


The official secret 

Katharine’s job at GCHQ was to gather signals intelligence - emails and phone recordings - to translate into English, then supply any intelligence to the UK Foreign Office and Ministry of Defense. She was also cleared to read sensitive GCHQ emails, which is how she stumbled on a memo from the US National Security Administration (NSA). The three paragraphs changed her life.

“I almost felt like I'd entered a parallel universe,” Katharine said. “I actually had access to information that was explosive enough to derail the potential invasion of Iraq.”

It was January 2003, two months before the war started, and the NSA wanted Britain’s help spying on six UN Security Council diplomats, requesting “the whole gamut of information that would give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US interests or goals”. 

In other words, intel to blackmail diplomats from smaller nations - Mexico, Chile, Pakistan, Angola, Cameroon, and Guinea - so they’d agree to support the Iraq invasion.

“The stakes were so high, and the cost to innocent life was so high, that I had basically a duty to get it out to the public,” Katharine said. 

She was prepared to break Britain’s Official Secrets Act if necessary, and leak the email. Her plan took shape over the weekend: “Once I started thinking - and, if you like, conspiring to commit a crime - I felt as though I had a target on my back.”
 

Katharine Gun, GCHQ Whistleblower
Katharine Gun printed the NSA memo but wasn’t sure what to do next

 

Smuggling out intel

The GCHQ translator sat down in another section of GCHQ, clicked on the NSA email, then copied and pasted it into a note document. Once it was printed, Katharine slipped it into her purse: “For the rest of the day, it felt as though it was burning a hole through my handbag.”

Bag searches were rare and Katharine was relieved to sail through security at the end of the day, but now what? Secretive spies don’t often socialize with nosy journalists, so Katharine posted a copy of the email to a friend. The memo eventually made its way into the hands of Martin Bright, a London reporter for The Observer

“This was one of those moments where you get a tingle up your spine,” Martin told the True Spies podcast. 

The fallout could be huge, but the email header was knocked off. Who sent it? Who received it? Was it even real? Anyone could have conjured up a fake email to stop the US and Britain from putting boots on the ground in Iraq. But what if the memo was real? Martin also risked prison for breaching the Official Secrets Act just for having it in his possession. 


Keira Knightley in Official Secrets
Katharine (Keira Knightly) slipped into a different GCHQ department to print out the email


Katharine had written the name ‘Frank Koza’ on her copy, so Martin turned to Ed Vulliamy, the paper’s New York reporter. They needed to find out if Frank Koza existed and, if so, did he really work for the NSA?

Weeks went by. The clock ticked down to the March 2003 invasion. Katharine began wondering if the email wasn’t really a big deal after all. She’d all but given up hope when she saw the front-page splash: Revealed: US dirty tricks to win vote on Iraq war.

My heart literally stopped,” she said. “I felt like I had a target on my back and a neon sign on the front of my forehead saying ‘Guilty’”.

The Observer headline on Iraq dirty tricks


My heart literally stopped,” she said. “I felt like I had a target on my back and a neon sign on the front of my forehead saying ‘Guilty’”.

She stumbled home and told her husband. His advice? “Keep schtum.”

But the news went viral. Mexico and Chile were apoplectic. Pakistan was outraged. GCHQ was on the warpath. The war was imminent and GCHQ had a traitor in the ranks. That’s when Katharine did something extraordinary: “I just blurted out that it was me.”

She was interviewed, charged, and given bail. In February 2004 - with the casualties multiplying into the thousands in Iraq - Katharine finally had her day in court. Was she morally right or a traitor? 

Lord Goldsmith, Britain’s then-attorney general, declared the war legal but it wasn’t straightforward. Katharine’s lawyers had evidence that Lord Goldsmith initially thought the war might be illegal. And, if the invasion was unlawful, Britain could be guilty of war crimes.
 

Katharine Gun outside the Old Bailey court in London
Katharine Gun outside the Old Bailey criminal court


It's very daunting, quite an overwhelming place to be in when your opposition is the government,” Katharine said. “It was like an out-of-body experience.”

It became even more surreal when the UK prosecutor said the British government would offer no evidence. Katharine was free to go. “There was sort of a gasp and maybe a cheer,” she recalled. 

It was over. Katharine had her day in court. She had exposed the underbelly of the intelligence services. She failed to stop the war in Iraq, but the leak contributed to the UN’s refusal to back the invasion. She still has one regret, however. 

“I've wondered if, in fact, that wasn't a deliberate move on the part of the government to prevent further exposés, to prevent further light being shown on what was a very dark and dirty moment in our history. And so, I feel almost resentful that they did actually drop the charges against me.”

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