The Woman Who Followed Her Conscience and Tried to Stop a War

With a last name of Gun, perhaps it’s not surprising that she’s called the spy who tried to stop a war. Except Katharine Gun did it by using what may be the strongest weapon of all: Words. Because she spoke out right away, she achieved something no other whistleblower had done – all because she followed her conscience.

Fast forward to today. There’s been a book written about her, and Kiera Knightley — who has said that she’s interested in modern scripts where women weren’t “there to be the loving girlfriend or wife” — is portraying her in an upcoming movie called Official Secrets. Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg has called her his hero and a model for other whistleblowers.

It all started in 2003 when Gun was a 28-year-old Mandarin translator at the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham. She received a memo from the US National Security Agency in which the US government asked for help spying on UN Security Council delegations in New York. The hope was that the US and UK would work together to convince certain countries to support a war in Iraq.

Knowing this was corrupt and illegal, Gun printed out the memo and brought it home. This action in itself was a breach of the Official Secrets Act, which meant automatically risking at least two years in prison. Gun didn’t stop there; she passed it on to a former colleague who supposedly leaked it to the Observer, which subsequently published it. Needless to say, the world took notice. Poof went any chance of passing a UN resolution in favor of war, and within days, President Bush – who apparently was planning an invasion all along – invaded Iraq.

As for Gun, she confessed to her superior that she had leaked the email. She lost her job, was arrested, and spent a night in jail. Eight months later, she was charged under the Official Secrets Act. The charges were dropped a few months after that when the prosecution withdrew its evidence.

Like she didn’t have enough to deal with during her trial, Gun was simultaneously fighting for the right of her Turkish husband to stay in the UK. They successfully got him to stay. Years later, she, her husband, and their daughter moved to Turkey for family reasons, and where she has no regrets about her past actions.

This is not to say that Gun has gotten over what happened. She still harbors anger and frustration about the lack of action on intelligence. She’s only worked intermittently since, though she admits she hasn’t aggressively pursued a career. She told the Guardian that this leak is “not even a footnote in the history of Iraq.”

Gun is in the history books for another reason; Her leak occurred in real-time. As Daniel Ellsberg described it, her actions were unique because “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.”

Now with Knightley portraying her on screen, the hope is that Gun – the woman who followed her conscience — will be more than a footnote.