You remember the Katharine Gun story, right? The British “Ed Snowden” who leaked a damning National Security Administration email that urged wiretaps and extortion in order to influence the UN vote in favor of invading Iraq, back in 2003? And you remember the British “Neil Sheehan,” Martin Bright, who got hold of the document and published it on the front page of the Observer in early March of that year? Surely Gun went to prison and Bright won a Pulitzer, right? Together they prevented the war in Iraq? No? You don’t remember?
Well, that’s because only the first half of the above scenario actually happened. Gun did leak the document, and the Observer did run Bright’s story on its front page, on March 2, 2003. All hell should have broken loose, and support for the war, already shaky in some quarters, should have ended. Nevertheless, three weeks later George Bush began the Shock and Awe bombing of Iraq. The article, though itself shocking and awful, had little effect, for reasons that are made clear in the movie Official Secrets (and would spoil the experience for you if I revealed them here.)
Full disclosure: I wasn’t entirely against the war when it started. I was living in New York when the Towers were hit. I listened as emergency vehicles screamed their way down Broadway that day. Comforted my daughter when she woke up with nightmares that week. Had nightmares myself when the Metro North trains chugging by at night entered my dreams as thundering military planes. Later, I feared the weapons of mass destruction whose existence Colin Powell confirmed to the UN in calm, measured, insistent tones. Yes, as much as I hate war, I was manipulated by the hype, the news, and my fears. And by that gaping hole in downtown Manhattan, that looked like an abscessed cavity among the skyscrapers as I flew into LaGuardia a month after the attack. But mostly by those weapons of mass destruction.
All hell should have broken loose, and support for the war, already shaky in some quarters, should have ended.
I say this as a reminder that public opinion mattered immensely in the runup to the war. Bush did not want to be seen as the aggressor but as the moral defender. Therefore, he needed the support and approval of the media, the world at large, and the UN in particular. The leaked document could have influenced all three. Indeed, the editorial board of the Observer had supported the war, until its members were convinced that the document was real and they decided to publish the article.
Official Secrets tells this story skillfully, suspensefully, and with reasonable accuracy; Gun was a consultant on the film and spent many hours with director and writer Gavin Hood to help him understand the motivation for what she did, and her experience after she was caught. But as in all films, the story is streamlined and enhanced for dramatic effect. In particular, Gun is married to a Turkish Muslim, Yasar Gun (Adam Bakri), which casts some underexplored suspicion on her motivation. Moreover, whenever a film is based on a true story, the filmmaker has to package it for presentation in a two-hour block with a rising conflict and satisfactory resolution. That requires streamlining events and enhancing or creating certain characters to make it work. But Official Secrets feels like an honest presentation, whether or not it is entirely factual.
Two character lines drive the film: that of the whistleblower Kat Gun (Keira Knightley) — do I dare say she pulls the trigger on the NSA? — and that of the reporters Martin Bright (Matt Smith) and Peter Beaumont (Matthew Goode), who investigate and write the story. All face the same dilemma: how to reveal confidential information without facing jail time.
Yes, as much as I hate war, I was manipulated by the hype, the news, and my fears.
As a low-level translator for the British Government Communications Headquarters, Gun is basically hired to spy, eavesdropping on private conversations and alerting her supervisor if something seems “suspicious.” She is bound by the Official Secrets Act of 1989 not to reveal or even talk about anything she sees or hears or experiences at work. (This becomes particularly onerous when she tries to communicate with her lawyer.) But when reminded that she works for the British government, she counters, “I work for the British people.” Good stuff.
Bright and Beaumont are mostly concerned with authenticity: Is the document real? Can they confirm its source without revealing their own sources? Their efforts to verify create a more suspenseful and compelling storyline than Gun’s relationship with her husband and her fears about their personal risks. To me it’s the best part of the film. Ralph Fiennes as her principled attorney also provides some fine libertarian talking points.
When reminded that she works for the British government, Gun counters, “I work for the British people.”
Both of these topics — spying and ethical journalism — are highly relevant today. My inbox is full of speech-chilling articles about Apple and Google using Siri and Alexa to listen in on private conversations, and even more chilling articles about the draconian “social credit” system arising in China. And as I write this review, the New York Times is trying to justify its decision to run a front-page story dredging up a sexual abuse allegation against Justice Brett Kavanaugh and “accidentally” leaving out a sentence indicating that the presumed victim says that she doesn’t remember the incident. In a particularly dramatic scene, a similar “accident” happens in Official Secrets.
Moreover, the “quick” war in Iraq quickly expanded to Afghanistan and other countries in the Middle East, dragging on for 18 years with no end in sight. Over 5000 US troops have been killed and tens of thousands have been injured. And American good will around the world is at an all-time low.
We really showed them, didn’t we?