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War, journalism and whistleblowers: 15 years after Katharine Gun’s truth telling on the verge of the Iraq war

Katherine Gun blew the whistle on GCHQ spying on the UN Security Council, revealing an illegal attempt to undermine the democratic process and increase the appetite for war in Iraq. And she did it within 48 hours.

The event ‘War, Journalism and Whistleblowers: 15 years after Katharine Gun’s truth telling on the verge of the Iraq War’ at Birkbeck University, co-ordinated by: Veterans for Peace UK, ExposeFacts, RootsAction, Media Reform Coalition, National Union of Journalists, Centre for Investigative Journalism, Courage Foundation, and Big Brother Watch; which I attended, demonstrated the broad benefit whistleblowing brings to civil society.

Working as a Mandarin translator at GCHQ – the British government’s communications HQ in Cheltenham – Gun leaked a confidential US National Security Agency email to the Observer newspaper. The memo asked her and her colleagues to help the US government spy on UN security council delegations in New York. The belief was this would help the US and UK governments to swing wavering countries in favour of a planned invasion of Iraq. It cost Gun, who now lives in Turkey with her family, her job. She was arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act. A new film, out later this year, starring Keira Knightley and Matt Smith, will tell her GCHQ whistleblowing story.

Whistleblowers on the panel from the US and the UK had each endured an unimaginable battle, revealing the wrongdoing of their own governments and nations. On the panel was legal counsel Jesselyn Radack, who represented Edward Snowden; and media and press were represented by author and presenter Duncan Campbell.

After introductions had been made, a video greeting from Daniel Ellsberg (known for leaking the Pentagon Papers, and revealing the extent the US mislead the public on Vietnam) was shown, in which he called Katherine Gun his hero.

Thomas Drake, the NSA Senior Executive and Analyst, spoke candidly of his own reservations about coming forward. At a time where Dick Cheney was telling Congress and the world the US had ‘slam dunk’ evidence that Iraq was an imminent threat to the US; Drake knew this was inaccurate – there was no intelligence to support such a stance. And yet, for some time, the entire intelligence community appeared to stay silent. Drake first made attempts to alert his senior colleagues, and then Congress, before resorting to encrypted messaging to raise his concerns with a journalist.

Matthew Hoh, who served in the US Army in Afghanistan, became the highest ranking US government official to publically renounce his countries foreign policy. Hoh won the Ridenhour Prize for truth telling about the injustice he witnessed, and now joins the Veterans for Peace march to the cenotaph each Armistice Day, wearing a white rose. Matthew told how he considers himself to have witnessed and contributed to an act of unjustified aggression, against a target which presented no threat.

But whistleblowing is not just for those who have witnessed war. The Investigatory Powers Act 2016 has been called “the most authoritarian regime of any democratic society” by Silkie Carlo, CEO of Big Brother Watch. Carlo spoke of how whistleblowing protects the values of a free society, delivering truth through free speech and press, and that the public must be a live to any attempt to subvert it. The bulk hacking revealed by whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, who revealed the GCHQ hacking program ‘Optic Nerve’, which covertly took images of millions of public webcam users; shows how invasive unchecked surveillance powers can be.

Speaking up is hard, and sometimes thankless. But it’s unbelievably valuable, and those who try the hardest to silence you, are often the ones most scared by what you have to say.

By PCaW Adviser Laura Fatah.