Sir John Chilcot’s report into the war in Iraq contains 2.6 million words and took seven years to complete yet there is one story which was untold in the dossier. It is the story of how two heroic GCHQ (Government Communications HQ) staff sacrificed their careers and ambitions in order to try and stop the most powerful country in the world from invading Iraq, and thereby preventing the slaughter of innocents.
One of the women, whom I called “Isobel”, came to see me after an anti-war gathering I addressed at Bristol University. It was towards the end of 2002 and I had recently returned from an investigative assignment in Iraq, convinced more than ever that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, as an anti-war journalist, very few of my colleagues in Fleet Street’s mainstream media wanted to run a story saying there were no WMD in Iraq, even though this was also the conclusion of the UN’s chief weapons inspector, Hans Blix, and his team of experts.
“Isobel” gave me a top secret document which turned out to be the biggest and most damning intelligence leak since World War II. I wondered how I could get the story out to the wider world that America was so desperate to push for war in Iraq that it was prepared to use blackmail against individuals sitting on the UN Security Council to get its wish.
The document made it quite clear that Britain’s spy agencies would do the spade work to seek out and dig dirt on council members which could then be used against them to secure their votes for war. It was sensational.
All of the information was contained in an email from America’s National Security Agency (NSA) to Britain’s GCHQ. British spy agencies were “ordered” by their American counterparts to spy on all members of the Security Council to try to ascertain how they would vote in the event of Bush and Blair seeking UN approval for the war in Iraq.
When “Isobel” handed me the document I was working as a freelance journalist and automatically thought the best way to place it would be at the Daily Mirror which, under editor Piers Morgan, was one of the few Fleet Street titles to adopt an anti-war position. Intelligence stories are always difficult to prove and, without compromising my contacts at GCHQ, I was unable to supply the Mirror with anything other than the original email, although I had used an intelligence contact to verify its authenticity.
The war drums were beating ever louder when it was returned to me with disappointing news; it would not be used by the Mirror. In hindsight, the story was so massive that I should have gone straight to Morgan to try and persuade him to run it.
By this time it was early February and, realising that it had a limited shelf life, I contacted a former colleague at the Observer and told him what I had. I met with Martin Bright in a small cafe in London’s West End and knew straight away that he would give it his best shot as he realised the importance of the document.
It took a full three weeks for Bright, assisted by the Observer’s then defence correspondent Peter Beaumont and US editor Ed Vulliamy, to stand up the story and persuade the editor, Roger Alton, to run with it. It was years later before I discovered that political editor Kamal Ahmed did his best to persuade Alton to dump the exclusive.
There were even attempts to trash my personal reputation as a journalist and reminders bordering on hysteria about the Sunday Times’ embarrassing faux pas over the 1980s hoax “Hitler Diaries”; it was a desperate attempt to dissuade Alton not to use the story but it went ahead and the scoop soon travelled around the world. Sadly, days later, Iraq was invaded and the story was swamped by “Shock and Awe” headlines. Now it is virtually forgotten, but I often wonder if it would or could have altered the course of events had we been able to get the story published in early February 2003.
The woman who handed me the document – “Isobel” – and her colleague Katharine Gun, a 29-year-old Mandarin translator who also worked at GCHQ in Cheltenham, were arrested. When their homes were raided and searched by police, “Isobel” got a message to me; I was in Bahrain at the time and sent Bright a text message saying simply, “Shit, hit & fan”.
Recalling events some five years later, Martin Bright wrote in the New Statesman: “The email was sent by a man with a name straight out of a Hollywood thriller, Frank Koza, who headed up the ‘regional targets’ section of the National Security Agency, the US equivalent of GCHQ. It named six nations to be targeted in the operation: Chile, Pakistan, Guinea, Angola, Cameroon and Bulgaria. These six so-called ‘swing nations’ were non-permanent members of the Security Council whose votes were crucial to getting the resolution through.”
According to Bright, “It later emerged that Mexico was also targeted because of its influence with Chile and other countries in Latin America, though it was not mentioned in the memo. But the operation went far wider – in fact, only Britain was specifically named as a country to be exempt from the ‘surge’.”
Verifying the document as genuine proved the most difficult task and Blairite journalists embedded in the Observer newsroom continued to whisper in the editor’s ear about conspiracy theories, Russian forgeries and even a double bluff scenario by GCHQ spy chiefs to flush out traitors.
In the end, Vulliamy simply telephoned the NSA’s Maryland HQ and asked to speak to the author of the email. Within seconds he was put through to Frank Koza’s office and the man himself answered the phone. Although he refused to comment on the story, the call proved that Koza did indeed exist and was not some invention of the Kremlin’s spooks.
The story was published on 2 March 2003 but it became clear that the US president was going to go to war come what may and that he wasn’t going to rely on UN support. Thanks to Chilcot, we now know that Blair had already given his unconditional support to Bush in September 2002.
Gun and “Isobel” were arrested for alleged offences under the Official Secrets Act, but the attorney general at the time, Lord Goldsmith, dropped the case at the 11th hour on 26 February 2004. Had the case gone ahead, it would have been both sensational and embarrassing for the US and Britain. Today I wonder if that is why Chilcot chose to ignore the story, which has been recounted in part by Bright. The shenanigans of what went on inside the Observer newsroom were provided in more detail by award-winning journalist Nick Davies. He decided to break Fleet Street’s unwritten rule by investigating his own colleagues, in order to expose how the mainstream media subverts the truth.
In his book “Flat Earth News”, Davies gave us a scathing critique of the media; not just some of it, but all of it. Davies’ most damaging dirt is reserved for Kamal Ahmed, the man who – with no prior experience – was appointed as political editor of the Observer after Patrick Wintour moved to the Guardian. The more obviously qualified Andy McSmith was overlooked by the new editor, Roger Alton, whose sympathies were generally right-wing. According to Davies, both Alton and Ahmed were open to endless manipulation by Downing Street, which resulted in uncritical stories about the “findings” of the now notorious “dodgy dossier”.
There were other blatant lies published about Saddam’s alleged connections to Al-Qaida and his arsenal of WMD. Journalists like myself who supported the anti-war movement and individuals like Blix and US republican Scott Ritter were demonised and ridiculed for holding to a narrative which differed from that of the pro-war lobby.
The British and American media ware manipulated by people inside newsrooms who were under the influence of the Bush and Blair camps, manipulation the like of which we can see continuing today in the attacks against anti-war Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. The pro-war lobby appears to be infecting all walks of life, including the media and government.
I don’t know if Chilcot was persuaded to ignore the story of the GCHQ leak or if he simply over-looked it, but as whistle-blower Kathryn Gun writes here, it was a missed opportunity. If nothing else, this is a cautionary tale which serves as a warning about the kind of desperate measures that the US and British governments are prepared to take to get their own way, especially on matters relating to the Middle East. If that means blackmailing, eavesdropping and intercepting the private communications of UN Security Council members, there are those in Washington and London ready, willing and able to do it.