Official Secrets Debuts with Gun Blazing
Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War
Who needs a cinematic world of superheroes when we already have a quartet of real-world heroes willing to risk everything to confront and expose evil? Forget about The Avengers. Instead, let’s have a rousing cheer for the like of Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Katharine Gun.
By now, the first three heroes have all been the subject of powerful documentaries and/or box-office big-screen bios. Now millions of people are about to marvel at the story of Katharine Gun, portrayed by Oscar-nominated actress Keira Knightley in the new film, Official Secrets.
Gun’s incredible story—virtually unknown in the US—begins in the UK during her service in the Government Communications Headquarters (Britain’s version of Washington’s National Security Agency). On a fateful day in 2003, a message flashed across the screen of her GCHQ computer. The memo, written by a US intelligence agent named “Frank Koza,” revealed a secret US/UK plot to blackmail United Nations delegates into supporting a resolution backing a US attack on Iraq. In the memo, Koza (who was identified as “Def Chief of Staff (Regional Targets”) spoke of “mounting a surge” to obtain a “gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals” by conspiring to “revive/create efforts against UNSC members Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria and Guinea, as well as extra focus on Pakistan UN matters.”
As an intelligence employee, Gun immediately realized the memo-writer was proposing: a high-level campaign to blackmail members of the UN into supporting an illegal act of aggression.
At the time, the prospect of a US-instigated attack on Baghdad, was immensely unpopular. Anti-war protests and marches had blossomed around the world. On February 15, 2003, as many as 11 million people in more than 650 cities worldwide, marched for peace. Katharine Gun was one of those who joined the protest. “The Day the World Said No to War” remains the largest political demonstration in human history.
Looking at the memo, Gun was appalled. It appeared that—despite the massive protests and a lack of UN cover—Washington and London were determined to “lie the people into war.”
The movie is packed with the stuff of spy thrillers but, this time, it’s for real. There really are powerful operatives (like “Frank Koza”) who “do not officially exist.” There really are powerful agents in the intelligence, government, and business communities who have hidden identities, who speak in codes, who toy with truth and lies, and people whose power allows them to issue a threat simply by stating “I cannot confirm or deny”—delivered with a threatening smile.
In Official Secrets, Knightley alternatively frets and fumes as she attempts to decide how to handle the Koza Memo. She’s both outraged and terrified. She feels the need to act but she’s understandably fearful about the consequences. Eventually, that single incriminating page is duplicated and shared, leaving Gun to deal with whatever unknown consequences her act of conscientious defiance will deliver.
In the film, Gun is almost always surrounded by encroaching shadows—whether sitting at her dimly-lit GCHQ cubicle, cuddling with her Kurdish husband in a dark bedroom, or perched on a sofa in a living room lit only by the glow of a TV screen showing PM Tony Blair openly lying to the British people about “Saddam’s threat.”
When Gun finally decides to spare her fellow workers from the stress of mass interrogations and threat of lie-detector sessions, her future seems even bleaker.
She has violated the Official Secrets Act, a law that, as a member of the GCHQ, she had sworn to obey.
Ordered to participate in a grilling by an ominous-looking GCHQ interrogator, Gun finally manages to pull herself out a prolonged pond of uncertainty and fear and places her feet on solid, moral ground. In one of those great moments of moral cinema, she rebukes her interrogator with a speech that echoes some of the fire in Mario Savio’s “Put your bodies on the gears” speech on the steps of Sproul Hall.
Upon being warned that she is supposed to be “working for the British government,” Gun looks her challenger straight in the eye and proclaims:
“Government’s change. I work for the British people. I gather intelligence so that the government can protect the British people. I do not gather intelligence so that the government can lie to the British people.
I don’t object to being asked to collect information that could help protect a terror attack. What I object to is being asked to gather intelligence to help fix a vote at the UN and deceive the world into going to war.…
By attacking Iraq, you do not simply attack Saddam Hussein. You attack a country of over 30 million people and I cannot bear to think of the pain and suffering that that will cause. Frankly, I don’t see how anyone can bear it.”
Another memorable moment comes when George W. Bush tells the American people that the US has commenced it’s “Shock and Awe” bombing of Iraq’s capital in order to “disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.” We now know that everything Bush is saying is a lie. And we wind up wondering “How come the people behind this evil, illegal war are not the ones facing jail time?”
It must have been especially crushing for Gun to hear Bush’s words: “Our nation enters this conflict reluctantly, yet our purpose is sure. The people of the US and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder.”
In real-life footage from the Oval Office, Bush is seen falsely claiming that Washington’s goal is simply to help “Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country. . . . We have no ambition in Iraq except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people….”
Addressing the US troops he has ordered to bomb, invade, and occupy Iraq, Bush proclaims: “In this conflict, America faces an enemy that has no regard for conventions of war or rules of morality” and adds: “The people you liberate will witness the honorable and decent spirit of the American military. . . . We will pass through this time of peril and carry on the work of peace.”
As Bush glorifies America as an innocent party dedicated to peace, we see video footage of US bombs barreling into to buildings across Baghdad, turning the city into an exploding inferno that leaves the bodies of civilians ripped apart and scattered on the streets.
Gun’s only hope lies with a volunteer team of lawyers (lead by Ralph Fiennes) that is constrained by an Official Secrets Act that forbids them from discussing the details of the alleged crime with the defendant. Undaunted, they conceive an inspired work-around involving the legality of waging wars.
Official Secrets also offers a nail-biting subplot involving Gun’s husband, who is targeted for deportation by the UK government as a means of attacking Gun.
And, the conclusion of Official Secrets, in which Gun stands alone before a dimly-lit courtroom and is asked how she pleads—leads to a surprising, and supremely satisfying, twist.
Also: following a pattern established in Oliver Stone’s 2016 film, Snowden, Official Secrets ends with an appearance of the movie’s real-life protagonist, Katharine Gun herself.
As a parting note, here is Daniel Ellsberg’s review of Gun:
“No one else—including myself—has ever done what Katharine Gun did: tell secret truths at personal risk, before an imminent war, in time, possibly, to avert it. Hers was the most important—and courageous—leak I’ve ever seen, more timely and potentially more effective than the Pentagon Papers.”
• Film ‘Official Secrets’ is the Tip of a Mammoth Iceberg. Sam Husseini, Consortium News.