When an American is asked to define the term “whistleblower," they will probably reference Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning. But, many in the U.S. might not know the story of the 2003 British whistleblower named Katharine Gun who, unlike Snowden and Manning, leaked government secrets to protect the public ahead of time.
In 2003, Gun worked for GCHQ, the British government agency that is equivalent to the National Security Agency across the pond. The former British intelligence officer leaked a document to the press that announced an illegal NSA spy operation created to convince the UN Security Council to approve the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Now, the political thriller Official Secrets (now in theaters) is unpacking Gun’s true story and her efforts to inform the British people. So, who was the woman behind the release of the NSA memo and what does she think about her decision now?
In case you aren’t too familiar with Gun’s story, I don’t want to give too much away about what the movie shows. But it’s not hard to guess from the Official Secrets trailer (and the fact that she exposed government secrets!) that the movie will depict the major consequences Gun faced for her actions. She was arrested and tried for violating the Official Secrets Act, hence the title. This legislation essentially protects state secrets in relation to national security.
In 2013, Gun spoke with journalist Martin Bright, who published Gun’s leaked memo and plays a major role in the film, in an interview published by The Guardian. At the time, Bright asked Gun how she felt looking back on her decision to share government documents. “Still no regrets,” she responded. “But the more I think about what happened, the more angry and frustrated I get about the fact that nobody acted on intelligence.” Then, the idea of a movie was circling in Hollywood, as the article mentions, but it had not been developed. Now that the film is out, how does she feel about her story resurfacing and how it is being told?
In Official Secrets, Gun is played by Keira Knightley while Matt Smith takes on the role of Martin Bright. When asked by Salon how it felt to see a famous actress act out her life for an audience to see, Gun said, “First of all, I never set out to be a whistleblower. Secondly, I never expected that my story would be interesting to anybody. Third of all, you know, I was actually terrified of being named, of being identified.”
She explained that when she was first arrested, her name wasn’t released publicly for eight months. Gun received bail each month, so she was able to make it seem like she still worked for GCHQ and had a normal life. But when her name was released to the press, she did a few interviews before trying to reclaim her anonymity. “I disappeared with my husband down to the coast in Brighton, on the coast of England, and spent some time away from the limelight,” Gun said in the interview. “Then the story went away, and that's how I wanted it at that time, because I was actually quite traumatized by the whole thing.” She did add, however, that she's hopeful the film will shed much needed light on the subject.
When Gun exposed that the U.S. and U.K. wanted information on United Nations diplomats to persuade the vote on the invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush was President of the United States and Tony Blair was the British Prime Minister of the U.K. Gun’s information affected Blair’s politics and government at the time, but he has seemingly recovered from the incident. Gun said that “remarkably and very depressingly” Blair has been given the opportunity to speak about Brexit on multiple platforms recently. “You know, these people, from my point of view they have extremely damaged reputations, and I don't believe they have any moral authority to make any kind of public pronouncements,” Gun said.
Although technically a period piece, moviegoers will be able to make connections to more recent whistleblowing scandals when watching Official Secrets. They will also likely question whether Gun should be considered a hero or a traitor and if she was right to do what she did. But, there’s no doubt where Gun stands on the matter. Before filming Official Secrets, Knightley made sure to spend time with Gun and hear her side of the story. The actress told Entertainment Weekly that Gun reiterated she did not regret any of her actions in 2003.
Knightley said when she asked Gun if she would do it again, Gun simply replied, “Yes, absolutely.”