Katharine Gun

Katharine Gun spent the first three years of her life in Durham, a city in northern England. Then she moved to Taiwan with her parents, Jan and Paul Harwood. Jan and Paul had met when they were both students in the Asian Studies program at Durham University. Paul wanted to go to Taiwan to improve the Chinese he had learned at university. He found teaching work there, and the family stayed.

Katharine grew up in Taiwan. She returned to England when she was ready to take her university entrance exams. When she had done that, she entered Durham University, where she studied Chinese and Japanese. After she graduated, she went to work at GCHQ — Government Communications Headquarters — in Cheltenham, near London. The GCHQ does electronic surveillance, both domestic and foreign, for the British government. There is a comparable organization in the United States, called the National Security Agency.

Around 4,500 people work at the GCHQ. Most of them are translators or code-breakers. Katharine’s work was translating Chinese. It was an ordinary, low-level job. In February, 2003, when Katharine was 28 years old, she was working with a group of colleagues, monitoring the Chinese delegation to the United Nations — the 'UN.' While she was doing her job, Katharine saw an e-mail from Frank Koza, an employee of the National Security Agency.

At that time, the American government was trying to persuade the members of the United Nations Security Council to support its plans to attack Iraq. They had been spying on the delegations of Security Council members who were opposed to an attack. In the e-mail that was put on Katharine’s desk, Frank Koza asked the GCHQ to help the National Security Agency by spying on Security Council delegates from Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria, and Guinea and, possibly, Pakistan.

The e-mail disturbed Katharine. She was disturbed because she felt the American government was asking the British government to help them undermine the UN. The Security Council of the UN should be, she thought, a place where people from all over the world could debate important issues calmly and logically. But, Katharine realized, calm, rational debate was not possible if the most powerful member of the Security Council was spying on the delegates of other countries and then using the information it got to try, secretly, to persuade those other countries to support the US.

She also felt, as she explained later, that the British people should be debating calmly and logically about whether or not they should join the Americans in attacking Iraq. Katharine was strongly against any kind of war. She said she was baffled by the fact that people were still dropping bombs on one another in the twenty-first century.

She felt that the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and his government wanted to go to war. And they were promoting their plan by using emotional language. In other words, they were trying to persuade the British people that war was necessary by getting them to feel fear and hatred.

When Katharine saw the e-mail, she had an idea: if she gave it to a newspaper, perhaps they would publish it, and perhaps when the British people saw that their government was willing to help the Americans undermine the UN, they would be shocked. Then, maybe, they would stop thinking emotionally and start thinking logically. If they did that, Katharine believed war could be prevented.

Katharine spent a few days thinking very hard. When she had taken the job at the GCHQ she had had to promise not to reveal any secret information. She realized that, by revealing the information, she would be committing a crime and that she might be sent to prison. But she felt it was something she had to do, so she took the letter to a newspaper, "The Observer." It was published on March 3, 2003 just over two weeks before the war began.

Katharine was immediately arrested and spent a night in jail. Then she was released on bail. During the next eight months she was repeatedly called in for questioning and then released again. During that time Katharine lived a lonely and frightened life. She no longer had her job with the GCHQ. She wanted to find another job but she was afraid of being asked questions about her past employment. She was also afraid of being recognized if she went onto the street, so she spent most of her time in her apartment with the curtains drawn.

On November 13, 2003 she was finally charged with violating the Official Secrets Act. By that time, she had become a hero in the eyes of people who opposed the war. Her legal defence was taken over by the British civil rights organization, Liberty. Her lawyers decided to defend her by arguing that she had not committed a crime. She had revealed secret information, they planned to say, only because she wanted to stop the British government from starting an illegal war. Before the trial, they demanded the government release the documents which, they said, showed that the war was legal. The government refused to do so. The lawyers then said that when the trial began they would ask the judge to force the government to release the documents.

On February 25, 2004, the day before Katharine’s trial was scheduled to begin, the government dropped all charges against her. Many people thought that they did this because they were unwilling to release the documents Katharine’s lawyers were demanding. The next day Katharine was free.

- information from: Independent, (London) 04.02.26 (Kim Sengupta);Time, 04.02.02 , (J.F.O. McAllister); Observer, 04.02.22 (Martin Bright) and 04.09.19 (Katharine Gun)