Katharine Gun worked at the British intelligence agency when she discovered an NSA memo that she used in an attempt to stop the invasion of Iraq. (Photo: The New Statesman)
Pigeons are coming home to roost in the prestigious halls of the United Kingdom's Parliament building. Whether they make it across the Atlantic to the US Capitol is a matter that should be of interest to all Americans.
On March 19, Katharine Gun testified before British lawmakers, asking them to commit to a full public inquiry into the decision to invade Iraq. Gun is well-known to Members of Parliament. She was the young British secret service officer who was arrested for leaking an illegal US spy operation against members of the UN Security Council debating the decision for war. The operation, mounted by the NSA, targeted six nations whose vote for a preemptive strike was considered essential to winning broad international support for war.
"What we were being asked to do was to politicize intelligence, and we subsequently found out ... that policy was being fixed around intelligence," Gun said in her testimony last week.
The plot she revealed was conceived in America by an American intelligence agency whose director at the time repeatedly assured the US public - and the Congress - that the NSA "does nothing unlawful." Others saw it differently. Manipulating intelligence to fit policy was one thing, albeit both disgraceful and outrageous; manipulating people was tantamount to blackmail.
If Gun and others seeking a new and full Iraq war inquiry are successful, the NSA misadventure will once again be a matter of investigation, at least in Great Britain. Not a slap dash of whitewash, but true scrutiny. And, because the United Kingdom agreed to join in the illegal spy operation at the request of the United States, a related issue will once again be back on the front burner - that of American influence over British decision-making at the highest levels.
Five years ago, on the day following its collapse at the Old Bailey, members of Parliament hotly debated issues surrounding the Katharine Gun case. Especially troubling, and certain to be troubling again, was this question of whether the Americans led the British not only into spying against the UN, but also into an unpopular - and perhaps illegal - war.
The words of MP Colin Challen, spoken during that earlier, historic debate, will come back to haunt this time around:
"The substantive issue is whether or not we acted at the behest of the American government."
The possibility of having been so seriously flummoxed by politicians across the pond was, and continues to be, painfully disturbing. The illegal spy operation and the preemptive strike against Iraq were linked in an enduring relationship by Challen and his colleagues. To reexamine one act is to reexamine the other.
Earlier investigations into pre-war intelligence issues, such as those reported by Lord Butler and Lord Hutton in the UK and by the Iraq Intelligence Commission in the US, have not answered the most compelling questions about how and why the US and the UK went to war without a clear UN mandate and with reliance upon egregiously flawed intelligence. Neither have they addressed the issue raised in the Gun case from the beginning - the legality of the war.
Hopefully, a new investigation into the how and why of it all will remind the world that "getting rid of Saddam Hussein," so often touted as the justification for war, ignores the existence of international accords prohibiting a preemptive invasion for the purpose of regime change. Thus far, few have taken notice of this inconvenient truth, especially in the mainstream US media - which essentially ignored the Gun case - and in certain high places on both sides of the Atlantic.
The US Iraq Intelligence Commission was empanelled to explore, among its other mandates, the quality and value of pre-war Iraq intelligence. The problem was the mandate the commission did not have - one that relates directly to what happened a few days ago in London, and to those pesky pigeons winging their way to the House of Parliament.
What the commission lacked, according to its own report, was the power "to investigate how policy makers used the intelligence they received."
And there's the rub.
It's going to take investigating decisions of the policy makers and intelligence manipulators, not the intelligence collectors - if the truth is to be revealed. Investigators need to knock on doors on Downey Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Former UK diplomat Carne Ross, who left the UK Foreign Office over questions about the validity of pre-war intelligence and the legality of the war, agrees. He told Members of Parliament last week that, "There should be a full public inquiry ... into the decision-making that took place."
Katharine Gun agrees. Standing strong at the time, the young intelligence officer challenged the decision to go to war based on its legality and risked years in prison for doing so. She has outraged many by saying, "I have no regrets. I would do it again." This was her mantra even as the government was preparing to try her for high crime. It is her mantra today.
Testifying with Carne Ross and others, she told Members of Parliament - who, as noted, remember her well, that "Working on the inside, there are people whose views are similar to my own, but they dare not speak their mind."
If there is a significant paradigm switch, if truth becomes the essence of hope and the recorder of history, others, in both the United States and Great Britain, may find the courage to speak up.
Gun has a platform in the UK and people are listening. In Washington, DC, she was featured last September at an American University symposium centered around publication of Gun's story in the US, "The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War," written by Marcia and Thomas Mitchell, a former FBI agent.