Finally, the Story of the Whistleblower Who Tried to Prevent the Iraq War

Of course Katharine Gun was free to have a conscience, as long as it
didn't interfere with her work at a British intelligence agency. To the
authorities, practically speaking, a conscience was apt to be less
tangible than a pixel on a computer screen. But suddenly -- one routine
morning, while she was scrolling through e-mail at her desk --
conscience struck. It changed Katharine Gun's life, and it changed

Despite the nationality of this young Englishwoman, her story
is profoundly American -- all the more so because it has remained
largely hidden from the public in the United States. When Katharine Gun
chose, at great personal risk, to reveal an illicit spying operation at
the United Nations in which the U.S. government was the senior partner,
she brought out of the transatlantic shadows a special relationship
that could not stand the light of day.

By then, in early 2003, the president of the United States --
with dogged assists from the British prime minister following close
behind -- had long since become transparently determined to launch an
invasion of Iraq. Gun's moral concerns were not unusual; she shared,
with countless other Brits and Americans, strong opposition to the
impending launch of war. Yet, thanks to a simple and intricate twist of
fate, she abruptly found herself in a rare position to throw a
roadblock in the way of the political march to war from Washington and
London. Far more extraordinary, though, was her decision to put herself
in serious jeopardy on behalf of revealing salient truths to the world.

We might envy such an opportunity, and admire such courage on
behalf of principle. But there are good, or at least understandable,
reasons why so few whistleblowers emerge from institutions that need
conformity and silence to lay flagstones on the path to war. Those
reasons have to do with matters of personal safety, financial security,
legal jeopardy, social cohesion and default positions of obedience.
They help to explain why and how people go along to get along with the
warfare state even when it flagrantly rests on foundations of

The e-mailed memorandum from the U.S. National Security Agency
that jarred Katharine Gun that fateful morning was dated less than two
months before the invasion of Iraq that was to result in thousands of
deaths among the occupying troops and hundreds of thousands more among
Iraqi people. We're told that this is a cynical era, but there was
nothing cynical about Katharine Gun's response to the memo that
appeared without warning on her desktop. Reasons to shrug it off were
plentiful, in keeping with bottomless rationales for prudent inaction.
The basis for moral engagement and commensurate action was singular.

The import of the NSA memo was such that it shook the
government of Tony Blair and caused uproars on several continents. But
for the media in the United States, it was a minor story. For the New
York Times, it was no story at all.

At last, a new book tells this story. "The Spy Who Tried to
Stop a War" packs a powerful wallop. To understand in personal,
political and historic terms -- what Katharine Gun did, how the British
and American governments responded, and what the U.S. news media did
and did not report -- is to gain a clear-eyed picture of a
military-industrial-media complex that plunged ahead with the invasion
of Iraq shortly after her brave action of conscience. That complex
continues to promote what Martin Luther King Jr. called "the madness of

In a time when political players and widely esteemed
journalists are pleased to posture with affects of great
sophistication, Katharine Gun's response was disarmingly simple. She
activated her conscience when clear evidence came into her hands that
war -- not diplomacy seeking to prevent it -- headed the priorities
list of top leaders at both 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and 10 Downing
Street. "At the time," she has recalled, "all I could think about was
that I knew they were trying really hard to legitimize an invasion, and
they were willing to use this new intelligence to twist arms, perhaps
blackmail delegates, so they could tell the world they had achieved a
consensus for war."

She and her colleagues at the Government Communications
Headquarters were, as she later put it, "being asked to participate in
an illegal process with the ultimate aim of achieving an invasion in
violation of international law."

The authors of "The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War," Marcia and
Thomas Mitchell, describe the scenario this way: "Twisting the arms of
the recalcitrant [U.N. Security Council] representatives in order to
win approval for a new resolution could supply the universally
acceptable rationale." After Katharine Gun discovered what was afoot,
"she attempted to stop a war by destroying its potential trigger
mechanism, the required second resolution that would make war legal."

Instead of mere accusation, the NSA memo provided
substantiation. That fact explains why U.S. intelligence agencies
firmly stonewalled in response to media inquiries -- and it may also
help to explain why the U.S. news media gave the story notably short
shrift. To a significant degree, the scoop did not reverberate inside
the American media echo chamber because it was too sharply telling to
blend into the dominant orchestrated themes.

While supplying the ostensible first draft of history, U.S.
media filtered out vital information that could refute the claims of
Washington's exalted war planners. "Journalists, too many of them --
some quite explicitly -- have said that they see their mission as
helping the war effort," an American media critic warned during the
lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. "And if you define your mission that
way, you'll end up suppressing news that might be important, accurate,
but maybe isn't helpful to the war effort."

Jeff Cohen (a friend and colleague of mine) spoke those words
before the story uncorked by Katharine Gun's leak splashed across
British front pages and then scarcely dribbled into American media. He
uttered them on the MSNBC television program hosted by Phil Donahue,
where he worked as a producer and occasional on-air analyst. Donahue's
prime-time show was cancelled by NBC management three weeks before the
invasion -- as it happened, on almost the same day that the revelation
of the NSA memo became such a big media story in the United Kingdom and
such a carefully bypassed one in the United States.

Soon a leaked NBC memo confirmed suspicions that the network
had pulled the plug on Donahue's show in order to obstruct views and
information that would go against the rush to war. The network memo
said that the Donahue program would present a "difficult public face
for NBC in a time of war." And: "He seems to delight in presenting
guests who are antiwar, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration's
motives." Cancellation of the show averted the danger that it could
become "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our
competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."

Overall, to the editors of American mass media, the actions
and revelations of Katharine Gun merited little or no reporting --
especially when they mattered most. My search of the comprehensive
LexisNexis database found that for nearly three months after her name
was first reported in the British media, U.S. news stories mentioning
her scarcely existed.

When the prosecution of Katharine Gun finally concluded its
journey through the British court system, the authors note, a surge of
American news reports on the closing case "had people wondering why
they hadn't heard about the NSA spy operation at the beginning." This
book includes an account of journalistic evasion that is a grim
counterpoint to the story of conscience and courage that just might
inspire us to activate more of our own.

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