Episode 14



Hayley Atwell meets ex-spy Katherine Gun and journalist Martin Bright, who tried to derail the course of history. On the brink of the Iraq War, Katherine leaked a top-secret memo which exposed a US plot to secure support for the invasion through blackmail.
Read the transcript →

True Spies Episode 14: The Spy Who Said No

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?

This is True Spies Episode 14: The Spy Who Said No. 

MARTIN BRIGHT: Being involved in an international story of this level that involves life and death, involves war, involves wrongdoing, and involves the moral courage of a particular individual was the highlight of my journalistic career

KATHARINE GUN: I have no regrets.

NARRATOR: This is the story of the spy and the journalist who tried to stop the Iraq War. On the 25th of February 2004, a 28-year-old Mandarin specialist at GCHQ, the UK government’s surveillance center in Cheltenham, is charged under the Official Secrets Act 1989, Section 1, Sub Section 1 - 'that she did knowingly, and intentionally, disclose top-secret intelligence information contrary to the said act'. This is the story of Katharine Gun, a spy in the UK intelligence services, who leaked a top-secret memo, and the journalist, Martin Bright, who would expose it in a national newspaper. By printing and posting the memo, Katharine broke the Official Secrets Act, risking her career and going to prison. She would send the memo to a contact who would share it with Martin.
The contents were explosive. It revealed a plan by the US government to gather intelligence about members of the United Nations and blackmail them to make them vote for war. The targets were the so-called ‘Middle Six’ delegations - Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Mexico, Guinea, and Pakistan. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, US President George W. Bush identifies Iraq - along with Iran and North Korea - as part of an axis of evil in his State of the Union address. He tells the United Nations General Assembly and warns Iraq that military action will be unavoidable if it does not comply with UN resolutions on disarmament. In 2002, the UK publishes a dossier on the threat posed by Iraq. It includes the claim that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction that could be used within 45 minutes. The UN Security Council unanimously passes a resolution giving Iraq ‘a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations’ and warning of ‘serious consequences’ if it does not. Saddam Hussein is not cooperating. Inspectors have not yet provided evidence of weapons of mass destruction, but the war drums are beating.

MARTIN BRIGHT: We were pretty sure that, by this point, there was determination on the part - certainly of the Americans - to go to war. The pressure was intense for the government, for the military involved in this decision-making. And in the United Nations itself, we've been following the ups and downs of the diplomatic process.

NARRATOR: That’s the journalist. Here’s the spy. Katharine Gun’s job at GCHQ is listening to and translating intelligence.

KATHARINE GUN: The role of GCHQ is to gather signals intelligence. So it was our job to translate anything that came in - that was either email, fax, or phone conversations - to translate those into English and to turn them, or to glean from them, any relevant information and decide whether or not there is information that could be then reported on to our customers, people such as the Foreign Office, or the Ministry of Defense, or other agencies like that within government.

NARRATOR: January 2003. It’s a Friday. Katharine, 28, shy and studious, sits at her desk at GCHQ in an open-plan office and as usual, the first thing she does is open up her emails. One, in particular, catches her eye. What’s this? A memo, forwarded from a senior manager in GCHQ - a classified email from the NSA, the National Security Agency in the US, to senior NSA officials. The three paragraphs she reads will change her life forever.

KATHARINE GUN: And as I read it, I became immediately appalled by what I was reading. I almost felt like I'd entered a parallel universe. And I felt as though I was seeing things behind the curtain. I actually had access to information that was potentially explosive enough to derail the potential invasion of Iraq at the time. It was a very shocking moment for me at the time.

NARRATOR: What could be in that email that was so shocking to someone working in intelligence for the government?

KATHARINE GUN: Basically, it was a request from NSA to assist them in a process of surveilling, collecting the communications - both home communications and office communications - of six of the diplomats who were sitting on the UN Security Council at the time. And then to gather - and this is a quote - ‘the whole gamut of information that would give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US interests or goals’. So, that sentence basically said to me, that they were prepared to use any means necessary in order to influence the diplomats on the UN Security Council in voting in favor of a UN resolution that would give authorization for the invasion of Iraq.

NARRATOR: Did you hear that right? The UK was being asked to gather intelligence that the US would use to bribe and blackmail smaller nations, individuals - UN diplomats - to force them into voting for war. Katharine had never, in her wildest dreams, imagined she would be a whistleblower accused of betraying her country.

KATHARINE GUN: I had joined in January 2001 along with a cohort of about 11 other recent graduates from university and it was a very convivial, very semi-academic environment, which I found, on the whole, to be very enjoyable to work in.

NARRATOR: But now Katharine’s conscience is pricked. She’s been in the job all of two years and she’s facing the sort of ethical dilemma most of us will never face. She already has her own doubts about going to war with Iraq.

KATHARINE GUN: By the time I received that email, I had myself become fairly convinced that an invasion of Iraq was unjustified. I just felt it was a really bad and dangerous trajectory that the country was being led down.

NARRATOR: You want to act. To do something. But what? What are the choices? Do nothing? Knowing that intelligence is being manipulated to take the country to war? Or share what you know for the greater good? If you do, you will be prosecuted and imprisoned as a traitor. Take a moment. Think. What would you do? Stand by your principles or just do your job?

KATHARINE GUN: When I read the email, I immediately felt the explosive nature of that email. And so, I felt if the public and if members of parliament within the UK had access to this information they would use it and pressure the government to explain exactly what their motivations - what their policy was - with regard to this. So, it almost entered my mind straight away that I should leak that email. I felt the stakes were so high, that the cost to innocent life was so high, that I had basically a duty to get it out to the public. 

NARRATOR: So Katharine decides she will, somehow, expose the contents of the memo. She begins to plan how she will do it. But she’s not experienced in this level of espionage. Will her fear, her emotions, get the better of her? Can she do it? How? Remember, act normal, just act normal. Nothing’s out of place. Nothing is unusual, just an ordinary Monday in the office 

KATHARINE GUN: I knew that on Monday I would be going back to work, but I would be at a different desk. I would log into an alternative computer. Of course, once I started thinking - and, if you like, conspiring to commit a crime - I felt as though I had a target on my back, I felt as though everybody could see the guilt on my face. So when I went into work on Monday, from the beginning to the end of the day, I was trying to remain as nonchalant and as normal as usual - even though I felt like I was on some kind of high alert.

NARRATOR: Hi! How was your weekend?

KATHARINE GUN: So I sat down at the alternative computer in the other section of GCHQ. I brought up the email. I copied and pasted it into a note document, and then I printed it off. And then, as soon as it had printed out, I whipped it off the printer, folded it up, and shoved it into my handbag. And for the rest of the day, it felt as though it was burning a hole through my handbag.

NARRATOR: She’s done it. She has printed the memo. Now she has to get it out of GCHQ and not give anything away as she passes security.

KATHARINE GUN: By this point, the thought of leaving and going past security had raised my level of anxiety considerably. But again, I was trying to remain as cool as a cucumber. And so, I did just kind of sling the bag on my shoulder and hope that - at the time, the very, very almost non-existence searches of bags and so on - I hoped that I wouldn't be that one in the 100,000 or whatever, and that I could just walk right through security without anyone suspecting. As it happens, that's what happened. I just sailed right through.

NARRATOR: The moment she steps out of GCHQ, Katharine breaks the Official Secrets Act - a criminal act - which could carry a prison term of up to 14 years. But she printed that memo for a reason. She wants it exposed. She knows the price: prison. But if someone in the press saw the memo they might ask questions about what the US was asking the UK to do. Who could she turn to for help?

KATHARINE GUN: I had absolutely no connection with any journalist. I didn't know a single person in the media world. It didn't really occur to me to go directly to any particular journalist. However, I did know one person whose identity I've never revealed, but I knew that they had made contact with a journalist So I telephoned this person and I said over the phone: “I have some information that is explosive. It has the potential to make a difference in this trajectory toward war.” And they said: “Send it to me.”

NARRATOR: Katharine is so paranoid about the contents of her letter she cycles over a mile away from her home to post the envelope. She had taken her name off the memo inside, so she’s anonymous. Now she waits to see what happens next. Here’s where the journalist comes in. Martin Bright is a journalist for The Observer newspaper in London. He’s the Home Affairs editor - crime, prisons, intelligence, terrorism. That sort of thing. He receives a call.

MARTIN BRIGHT: So, the first time I heard anything about this memo was when I was sitting in the office and I received a call from Yvonne Ridley, who was a former colleague of mine. She was a very seasoned journalist and she’d become famous in recent years because she had been reporting in Afghanistan and been captured by the Taliban. And, during her time in captivity, she had promised her captors she would read the Koran. And through the process of reading the Koran, she converted to Islam. And when she came back to the UK she became a very prominent anti-war campaigner. And a lot of people dismissed her as someone who had ceased to be a credible journalist and someone who had certainly pinned her colors to the mast. So, that was my first connection - a simple phone call from an old friend and contact.

NARRATOR: But Yvonne wasn’t just calling as an old friend for a chat about the weather. She told Martin she had something he should see.

MARTIN BRIGHT: And we met up in a cafe in Soho in central London. And she slipped across the table to me a piece of paper which had the memo printed on it - an email printed on it - on one side. But, at that stage, it was immensely frustrating because someone, somewhere - whether it was Yvonne or Katharine’s intermediary or Katharine herself, or someone I didn't know - someone had ripped off all the header information from the email in order to protect their sources or to protect or hide where this comes from. So, the first thing I said to Yvonne was: “This is of absolutely no use to me because it could have been typed by anyone.” It could have been typed by Yvonne herself. So she then turned the piece of paper over. On the back were handwritten details of the sender, where it had come from, which suggested that it had come from the NSA to GCHQ. And when I started reading the contents of the memo, it was extraordinary, explosive information suggesting that the voting at the United Nations had been subverted by this operation that was going on between the UK and the US.

NARRATOR: Martin felt, he knew, this was big.

MARTIN BRIGHT: This was one of those moments where you get a tingle up your spine as a journalist. And I knew that if this was true, it would be a really huge story.

NARRATOR: Public opinion against the war and the US is mounting. In February 2003, hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets in protest - described at the time as the biggest demonstration in human history. Martin has a dilemma. He has in his possession a memo that will expose the dirty tricks campaign by the US and possibly stop the war but there is a problem. His newspaper, and his editor, support the war - and the government.

MARTIN BRIGHT: The Observer in the UK is generally considered to be a liberal newspaper, a paper of the left. But the editor, Roger Alton, at the time, who came from The Guardian - a daily newspaper, which is also considered to be a paper of the left - had really wanted to shift this perception. And he really had decided that he was going to back Tony Blair, the push to war, and shift the observer away from its traditional liberal past. And there were a number of people in the newspaper who backed his decision, but there were others in the paper who were deeply embedded, bitterly opposed to this, in particular our US correspondent Ed Vulliamy. And there are those of us, I suppose, in the middle, who attempted to take a neutral stance, which I felt was the appropriate stance for reporting a conflict.

NARRATOR: So Martin knows he has potentially the biggest story of his career in his hands. But will the pro-Blair, pro-war newspaper run it?

MARTIN BRIGHT: It wasn't easy to persuade my editors to print the story. There are a number of elements to the story that made it difficult. So there was the stance of the paper itself, which was largely pro-intervention. There was the fact that this had come from what many considered to be an unreliable source, Yvonne Ridley, and there was the fact that this was, on the face of it, just a piece of paper with some words written on it. I hadn't received it directly from my source. I had no proof that it was what it said it was. And there were some who felt that it could be a fake, that it could be some sort of sophisticated foreign intelligence operation. There were others who felt that maybe it had been in some way concocted by the anti-war movement. And all of these, I suppose, were possible at the time. So, really, I would have loved to have run this story the moment that we received the memo, but it did take weeks before we could satisfy ourselves that this was the real thing.

NARRATOR: If the memo is real, he could go to jail for just having it in his possession. It’s classified material and toxic, not to say illegal, in the wrong hands. He too has now broken the Official Secrets Act. But is it fake? Where is his evidence? The problem is that Martin does not have a source. He does not know who has leaked the memo. It had allegedly been sent by Frank Koza, allegedly within the National Security Agency, GCHQ’s sister organization in the US.

MARTIN BRIGHT: It was very important to verify that the sender of the email, a man called Frank Koza, chief of staff of the regional targets department of the National Security Agency in the United States, was really, I mean, we really had to do everything we could to identify this man.

NARRATOR: Before Martin can publish the memo, he has to be sure Frank Koza is genuine. How do you find someone high up in the NSA who doesn’t want to be found? You can’t just Google them. What would you do? Where would you start?

MARTIN BRIGHT: So I just did the obvious thing and rang their press office and, of course, they wouldn't confirm the existence of Frank Koza.

NARRATOR: Oh, that’s disappointing. Is that it then? No one called Frank Koza works at the NSA? Are you sure?

MARTIN BRIGHT: But it was my colleague, really, Ed Vulliamy - who was based in New York at the time - who took this story and really wouldn't let it lie. So he rang the NSA every day, several times a day, asking to speak to Frank Koza. And time and time again he was rebuffed. And it was only when he spoke to a very senior contact of his that he got the feeling that maybe this man was the real thing. And we don't quite know-how, but a few days later a message was left with the news desk at The Observer, that Ed should call a particular number and that number was Koza’s office and someone answered the phone saying that it was Frank Koza’s office. That was what we really needed to prove his existence.

NARRATOR: A breakthrough. Frank Koza is genuine and works at the NSA. But this takes weeks. Katharine knows none of this. In Katherine’s world, nothing has happened since she posted the memo. Was anyone going to take notice? Was it all for nothing?

KATHARINE GUN: After I posted the memo, I sort of felt a sense of relief that I'd got it off my hands. And I did check for about a week, to two weeks, after I'd posted it to see whether it had surfaced anywhere in the press. And there was nothing. And I felt increasingly a sense of relief because I thought I really had stuck my neck out. And perhaps it was not really that newsworthy. I was beginning to have doubts about the importance of the email.

NARRATOR: Meanwhile Martin was still trying to persuade his paper to publish - and be damned.

MARTIN BRIGHT: What it meant - when we finally verified to the best of our ability, the identity of Frank Koza - is that we had a pretty good case to go into the editor and argue that we should run the story.

NARRATOR: The story is going to run. Katharine has no idea what she has leaked is about to become headline news and an international sensation. It’s Sunday morning. She pops out to the local shop for milk and a newspaper. That’s when she sees the headlines. This was the moment she had been hoping for and dreading.

KATHARINE GUN: My heart literally stopped the minute I saw that headline because I knew that's what I had leaked. And so, I was petrified again. I felt like I had a target on my back and a neon sign on the front of my forehead saying ‘guilty’. And so I picked up the paper and stumbled to the cashier, trying to pay for it without looking like I was freaking out at the same time. And then, literally, practically ran home. I basically burst into tears.

NARRATOR: The Observer headline: Revealed, US dirty tricks to win vote on Iraq war. Katharine isn’t identified. She is still anonymous, but she is shocked and distressed. They had printed the whole memo. Katharine had told no one what she had done. But now the story was out, there was someone who now needed to know.

KATHARINE GUN: I threw the paper on the bed. My husband woke up and looked at me, and I hadn't told him anything at all about what I had done. So when he saw me in the state that I was in, he was worried and perplexed. And I was just literally terrified. I pointed out the headline I pointed at the front page. And I babbled: “I did that.” And my husband is from Turkey, so English is not his first language, but he started reading. And he couldn't really make head nor tail of what was really being said in the report. And so, I had to try and explain it to him. I told him what I had done. And I said I'd been trying to stop the war in Iraq, and that I wanted people to know about the duplicitous and illegal behavior that was going on behind the scenes. And I just continued to have this breakdown, basically, and my husband was, understandably, extremely concerned. But he kept impressing upon me not to tell anybody. Do not tell anybody. Keep schtum.

NARRATOR: Martin’s reaction was quite different. 

MARTIN BRIGHT: It's one of the great moments of a journalist’s life when they get a big front-page ‘splash’ - as it's called. Seeing a story of this importance when you wake up on a Sunday morning, and you know that there are thousands of newspapers around the country with this headline, right? It's a big moment for a journalist.

NARRATOR: Their feelings may have been very different but, for both of them, there were to be consequences. The story had gone global.

KATHARINE GUN: Immediately, as soon as it was printed, the response was international because this involved the UN, the USA, and several specific countries around the world. And the nations who've been spied on were themselves pretty astonished by this. So - in particular, in Chile, in South America and Mexico, in Central America - this was a story that was devastating for them. It's very rare that you have a story that has that amount of international cut-through.

NARRATOR: And that cut-through had certainly been noticed at GCHQ. The government immediately began an investigation. On Monday morning, Katharine watches as, one by one, her colleagues are pulled into an interrogation. They want to find the leak - and quickly. Tuesday morning. Katharine’s turn. Her heart is pounding. Will it give her away? Can she withstand interrogation? She’s grilled about her childhood, where she lived, what she thought, her religious views. Did she know who was the source? What would she say? Two choices. ‘Yes’ or ‘no’. If Katharine says yes, she will be arrested as a traitor. She could deny it. She could lie and then what? You have a split second to decide. You can’t show any emotion, give anything away. Treason or lies. What would you do?

KATHARINE GUN: And I denied having anything to do with it. So following my husband's - some would say - good advice, I said that I had read the email, that it had not much of an effect on my thinking, and that I had deleted it. The fact that I would have to consistently maintain that lie for the rest of my potential career at GCHQ seemed absolutely galling.

NARRATOR: She had lied. She went home, heavy with the burden of her denial. But at home, she came to a decision. She couldn’t live with the lie. She couldn’t lead a double life and continue to lie on a daily basis, pretending she had nothing to do with the leak. And the US was dismissing the memo as a fake. There was no source. No one had admitted to the leak. They were going to get away with it. Get away with spying on United Nations diplomats to force the case for war. She couldn't have that on her conscience. If Katharine admitted to being the leak, it would prove the memo was genuine. So she did something extraordinary. The next day, at GCHQ she confessed.

KATHARINE GUN: And I just blurted out that it was me, that I'd done it. 

NARRATOR: The reaction was swift.

KATHARINE GUN: I was taken into police custody in Cheltenham police station. While I was in custody, a group came down from London to search my house. I was kept overnight while they searched our house. And then I was interviewed the following morning by Special Branch detectives. And then I was bailed.

NARRATOR: It would take eight months for the Crown Prosecution Service to bring charges against Katharine and a year to bring her to court. Despite Katharine leaking the memo, and Martin putting his career on the line to publish it, the Iraq war went ahead just two weeks after the story hit the headlines. On 20 March 2003, US and Coalition forces invaded Iraq. Had she failed? Had they both failed?

MARTIN BRIGHT: I did watch the official launch of the so-called shock and awe campaign over Baghdad when they basically blitzed the city with Tomahawk missiles. And it was absolutely devastating. Yeah, I wept and it's still very emotional. You have a whole mixture of feelings as a news reporter. You're there, excited in some ways to be witnessing history as it's happening and being part of a reporting team that's witnessing it as it's happening. And for me, you see, as a reporter, it's not my job to stop a war or intervene in history, to report on history. So my initial emotions were emotions of excitement to be part of this process as a reporter. But the thing about being a journalist is there's always the flip side, which is that this involves real people that - as the bombs land - that lives are being lost. And so there's a terrible feeling of sadness at the same time.

NARRATOR: Katharine is facing trial for breaking the Official Secrets Act. How will she be viewed? As morally right? Or a traitor to her country? What do you think? Her job had been to monitor intelligence for the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defense. How was the spying the US had asked for any different? Katharine prepares her defense, which is that she had tried to stop an illegal war. The attorney general at the time, Lord Goldsmith, had declared the war legal. But it had not been a straightforward decision. At the time Katharine leaked the memo, the defense had evidence that he had, at that point, declared the war illegal. And that later, after meetings in the US, he had changed his mind. The defense - her defense - was the defense of necessity - a necessary act to prevent loss of life, of thousands of lives. It’s now a year since Katharine took that decision to walk out of GCHQ with the top-secret memo in her handbag and her trial in London is about to begin. Katharine’s role in the leak is public. She is known as the spy who had exposed the US request to gather personal information to blackmail and bribe UN delegates to vote for war. Katharine is the focus of international attention.

MARTIN BRIGHT: It was a huge media circus on the day of Katharine's trial at the Old Bailey. It was an international story, there were TV cameras everywhere. There were journalists everywhere. So it was feverish. And so, my impression of Katharine this time was this small, young woman in the middle of this incredible international media event. And it was very moving because you're watching someone who has taken a huge risk with their career, with their livelihood, in order to stand up for her principles.

NARRATOR: Let me remind you what is at stake. It’s not just a news story. This is a pivotal moment in Katharine’s life. If found guilty she is going to prison as a criminal. She’s already lost her job, her colleagues, her friends, her life. And it’s her, alone, against the government.

KATHARINE GUN: I was very nervous about appearing at the Old Bailey. There were crowds of photographers and journalists lined up outside and it's very daunting, quite an overwhelming place to be in when your opposition is the government. And it felt very surreal. It was like an out-of-body experience. It's hard to really explain it because I had nothing to compare it to. I was experiencing it at the time and not able to take it all in at the same time.

NARRATOR: Katharine’s defense hinged on the legality of the Iraq war. The trial would unpick all the decisions by the UK government leading up to the decision to use military force. Katharine was ready. She stated her name and her plea: not guilty The defense would produce documents to show that the country had been taken to war illegally and, therefore, could be guilty of war crimes. The government didn’t take that risk. As Katharine stood in the dock, Martin watching from the public gallery, the court was astounded when the prosecution suddenly dropped all charges. The prosecution would offer no evidence, they said. Katharine was told she was free to go.

KATHARINE GUN: It takes a moment for you to register what they're actually saying. But as soon as the prosecution made that statement, there was sort of a gasp and maybe a cheer. And I felt a huge sense of relief, because when it became apparent that was actually going to be the end of it all - not the beginning of it all, where I would be hauled over the coals in a long protracted trial - that actually was the end. That whole year-long ordeal was finished. It was just an overwhelming sense of relief.

NARRATOR: Together Katharine and Martin had revealed the underbelly of the intelligence services. They had failed in stopping a war with Iraq, but they had caused alarm around the world. The leaking of the memo contributed to the UN refusing to back the war, which later UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said was an illegal act that contravened the UN charter. After all that happened, do they have any regrets?

MARTIN BRIGHT: The Katharine Gun case has been the defining story of my journalistic career. And I think that if I've got any regrets, it would be that we didn't find a way of printing the story earlier and that we didn't get an international alliance of journalists to really look into what was going on - in particular in the United States. I would say that if we changed anything, I mean, collectively, it was to demonstrate that the government's case for war was deeply flawed. And I think what Katharine managed to do - even though she didn't stop the war - is to contribute to stopping the United States and the UK from having United Nations cover to go to war. So they didn't have that diplomatic international alliance that they wanted. And I think Katharine can take some of the credit for that.

NARRATOR: What about Katharine?

KATHARINE GUN: I have no regrets about what I did about leaking the memo. I would still do it if I was in the same position again. I do have mixed feelings, however, about the trial or the lack of a proper trial. Over the years subsequent 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.

NARRATOR: Most whistleblowers leak after the event to expose perceived wrongdoing. Katharine did something unprecedented in the history of espionage. Katharine is now a housewife and mum. She never worked again. She had a promising career and in two years it was blown apart. Now you’ve heard the story, what do you think? Is Katharine Gun vindicated? Would you have done the same to stop a war? I’m Hayley Atwell. Join us next week for another rendezvous with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

Katharine Gun is a British linguist who worked as a Mandarin translator for British signals intelligence agency GCHQ when she found an email that just might stop the US invasion of Iraq.

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