WMD Intelligence Tested

The Spy Who Blew the Whistle

Katharine Gun, a former British intelligence officer, walked free from the Old Bailey yesterday [Feb. 25] and rekindled the debate over the war in Iraq. Her arrest for disclosing an unethical—and potentially illegal—U.S.-British bugging operation against friendly countries raises new questions about the events running up to the Iraq war, the behavior of the intelligence services, and the validity of the legal advice given by the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, to the government.

Gun’s appearance in the Old Bailey had its origin in New York more than a year ago. In the final fortnight before war in Iraq, six members of the U.N. Security Council—Angola, Cameroon, Guinea, Pakistan, Mexico, and Chile—found themselves caught up in a swirl of U.S.-British diplomacy. The British government desperately wanted them to swing behind a resolution on Iraq. But the six were proving difficult to persuade, and the U.S. and British governments urgently wanted any snippets about their likely voting intentions.

The U.S. government opted for underhand methods and asked the British government—and its intelligence services, including its listening agency, GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters]—to help out. Frank Koza, of the U.S. National Security Agency, sent out a memo and included in the recipients was GCHQ. The top secret memo asked for information about the voting intentions of Security Council members, jokingly adding “minus U.S. and GBR of course.” He asked for “the whole gamut of information that could give U.S. policy-makers an edge in obtaining results favorable to U.S. goals or to head off surprises.”

He asked agents to focus on what had been dubbed at the U.N. “the U6”: the undecided six Security Council members.

The memo seems to have been distributed widely within GCHQ. But it is not known whether the agency itself acted on the request. Had it done so, its role would have been to eavesdrop on foreign embassies in London.

It is commonplace, though never admitted, for the U.S. and British governments to listen in on friendly states. Intelligence analysts said yesterday that it was not surprising that the offices and even homes of the U.N. swing states were bugged. The 1994 Intelligence Services Act allows GCHQ to eavesdrop “in the interests of national security, with particular reference to the defense and foreign policies of Her Majesty’s government in the United Kingdom.” The wording can be interpreted extremely broadly.

During the fevered diplomacy in New York, the role of the six countries was pivotal. The U.S. public assessment was that they could be brought around. The [British] Foreign Office was privately more pessimistic, especially in regards to Mexico and Chile.

James Welch, a solicitor for Liberty, the civil rights group, and Gun’s lawyer, said yesterday: “Clearly what was being sought was an edge at a time when they were trying to secure a second U.N. resolution....What the United States was asking Britain to do was clearly unlawful in international law. It was a clear breach of the Vienna convention and it is also very arguably unlawful in domestic law.”

This diplomatic maneuvering was taking place while another, related row was brewing behind closed doors in Britain over whether existing U.N. resolutions provided a legal basis for going to war.

Clare Short, who was in the Cabinet at the time, yesterday praised Gun for her bravery. Short, then the international development secretary, said there had been “something smelly, fishy” about the legal advice from the attorney general. She said she suspected the case against Gun had been dropped “because they do not want the light shone on the attorney general’s advice.”

At the time, Short said, Cabinet members had been given only two pages of advice, and no discussion was allowed in Cabinet. Those pages have been made public but, she said, lots of crucial information related to the advice remained confidential.

While Gun is becoming a cause célèbre in Britain, the case has not yet resonated in the United States, where it has attracted scant attention.
It has been a bigger issue in Latin America. Mexico sent diplomatic notes to the U.S. and British governments this month seeking information about Gun’s allegations. A Chilean government spokesman, Patricio Santamaria, confirmed that in early 2003 wiretaps had been found in most of the phones at Chile’s U.N. mission.