Directed by Gavin Hood
Starring Keira Knightly, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Ralph Fiennes & Adam Bakri
Screening from November 21 at selected cinemas.
“I work for the British people, I do not gather intelligence so that the government can lie to the British people,” stated Katherine Gunn (Keira Knightly) to her interrogator when pressed on her decision to act as a whistle-blower.
Based upon Marcia and Thomas Mitchell's 2008 book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War, director Gavin Hood shows how Gunn leaked an email exposing the fact that the US government was eavesdropping on other countries in order to win United Nations approval in the lead up to its March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Born in Taiwan, Gunn studied Japanese and Mandarin. Struggling to find work as a linguist, Gunn answered a newspaper ad for a job with the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to work as a Mandarin translator. It is here in January 2003 that she reads an email from Frank Kozza, the chief of staff at the “regional targets" division of the US National Security Agency.
At the time, opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq was growing and we see reports of the massive anti-war marches that occurred worldwide. These culminated in the February 14–16 2003 marches with millions of people participating. In Official Secrets, we see the real life reports of these events as well as the speeches of British and US leaders in the lead up to the war.
It is in this context that Gunn receives the email, requesting aid from GCHQ to assist the National Security Agency in a secret and illegal operation to bug the UN offices of Angola, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea and Pakistan to gather information so as to swing the vote on whether the UN would support the invasion of Iraq. Outraged by this illegal action, Gunn decides to blow the whistle to prevent the war from happening.
Using a contact in the anti-war movement, Gunn leaks a copy of the memo to Martin Bright (Goode), a journalist for The Observer, whose editorial board was favour of the war, though with many of its staff against it. After verifying the memo, The Observer puts it on the front page just two weeks before the invasion of Iraq.
Gunn's efforts are unable to prevent the invasion of Iraq and it comes at a great cost to her as she is charged with violating the 1989 Official Secrets Act. Meanwhile, her husband, Kurdish asylum seeker, Yasar Gunn (Bakri) is threatened with deportation. Eventually Ben Emerson (Fiennes) agrees to take on her case pro bono on behalf of the human rights organisation Liberty.
Gunn and her legal team agree to risk prison by arguing that she was acting to prevent an illegal act and trying to save lives. They threatened the British government with disclosure. In February 2004, the British government, fearing they would be exposed as acting illegally in the lead up to the Iraq War, dropped the case. For Gunn, this was bitter-sweet as it meant her life would not be scrutinised in court but robbed her of the chance to put the war on trial.
Ultimately the evidence that would have been revealed at the trial came to light during the 2016 release of the report of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War. The report found that the intelligence reports the US and British governments had used to go to war had been faulty, that Saddam Hussein’s regime posed no threat to either country and they both acted illegally in the lead up to the war.
This information vindicated the anti-war movement and the actions of Gunn, who took a huge risk in her unsuccessful effort to stop the war. Although too late to stop the killings, Gunn's efforts have set a precedent for other whistleblowers such as Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden to expose the crimes of US and British imperialism.
When asked what she hoped people would take from the film, Gunn told The Guardian in September that “accountability is key. And that if the perpetrators in these situations get away scot-free, that has a knock-on effect. That whole period undermined the judicial process, it undermined the parliamentary process, and it undermined the media and press and the intelligence service. We are all of us living with the consequences of that. Truth always matters at the end of the day.”
In Official Secrets, we see one woman’s attempt to expose the lies of the US and British governments in the lead up to their invasion of Iraq, an action whose consequences the world still lives with today.