Keira Knightley as Katharine Gun in Official Secrets Keira Knightley as Katharine Gun in Official Secrets

Official Secrets shows the extent of the lies in the drive to war with Iraq and leaves the viewer asking how on earth Blair got away with it, writes Shabbir Lakha

Official Secrets is a powerful new film that opened in UK cinemas on 18th October, featuring a number of notable actors including Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. The film masterfully tells the story of a whistleblower from GCHQ who was charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act.

Showing up the Chilcot Inquiry, the film exposes the deliberate duplicity of the Blair government in coordination with the Bush administration and the transatlantic intelligence services. As discussions on whether or not Tony Blair should be remembered for instigating the Iraq War have re-emerged, and Julian Assange is facing trial for extradition to the US, the timing of the film’s UK opening is impeccable.

Katharine Gun, played by Keira Knightley, was a GCHQ spy who received a memo from the NSA, approved by GCHQ, in which a senior US intelligence officer was asking GCHQ and MI6 to support efforts of gathering intelligence on UN Security Council delegates with the explicit aim of using that intelligence to coerce the members to vote in favour of the Iraq War.

After the passing of UNSC resolution 1441 in November 2002, UN weapons inspectors and IAEA inspectors were deployed to Iraq to search for evidence of chemical and biological weapons that the US and UK were claiming were there. The failure to find any put serious doubts over the legality of any military action in Iraq without securing a second UN resolution mandating it.

Alastair Campbell’s ‘dodgy’ dossier claiming Iraq could attack the UK with biological weapons in 45 minutes, and Colin Powell’s speech to the UN on 5 February, part of which features in the film, claiming that Saddam Hussein had links to Al Qaeda, tried to up the stakes. But as the film shows, there was a widespread understanding within the rank-and-file of the intelligence community, that the American and British governments were manipulating and potentially fabricating intelligence.

Later in the film, it is explained how Donald Rumsfeld bypassed the CIA to set up his own intelligence unit within the Pentagon, the Office of Special Plans, in order to provide the Bush administration with unvetted intelligence that supported the administration’s claims about WMDs in Iraq – which was then used by the British government without question.

And this was all happening at the same time as the NSA, GCHQ and MI6 were digging up dirt on UN delegates so that the US could blackmail them. When the US realised it would still fail to win a second UN vote, it launched the war on Iraq together with Britain anyway – before the UNSC could veto it.

What’s more, is the British government’s own inability to defend itself against claims that the war in Iraq was in fact illegal.

Katharine Gun had passed on the memo to a friend who then got it to Yvonne Ridley, who then passed it on to the Observer – which up until the point that this memo was proven to be accurate, supported the war and was printing daily stories justifying the drive to war. After admitting to her superiors that it was her who leaked the memo, she was detained by the police and later charged with a breach of the Official Secrets Act.

Her lawyers at Liberty eventually decided to defend her by arguing that her actions were necessary to protect human life, and in order to do that, they subpoenaed government documents on the legal advice that it had received from the Attorney General. During the course of the film it is explained how that Attorney General Lord Goldsmith had advised Tony Blair that war with Iraq is unlawful and would amount to a war of aggression – advice that he later changed after a trip to the US where he met with Donald Rumsfeld and others in the Bush administration. In the case against Katharine Gun, the government refused to release these documents and the prosecution was unable to deny allegations in open court that the war was illegal.

The whole film, leaves the viewer questioning repeatedly – how on earth have Blair and Campbell and Straw got away with it? Watching the archive footage in the film of the speeches made by Tony Blair and George Bush juxtaposed with the truth of what was happening behind the scenes in the intelligence agencies, it is clear as day that far from being mistaken, they were deliberately lying.

And this isn’t information that has just come to light that we are judging with the benefit of hindsight. All the information was available at the time – as Lindsey German said when the Chilcot Inquiry was released in 2016, you could have got most of the information in its 2.6 million words at any Stop the War public meeting in the run-up to the war. Even Katharine’s leaked memo was published in full by the Observer before the war began. And there was popular opposition to the war – less than 10% of the British public supported the war in Iraq, and over a million people marched through London in what remains the biggest demonstration in British history to oppose it.

The film shows what a threat the anti-war movement posed to the establishment pushing for the war. When Yvonne Ridley, herself a journalist at the time, passes on the memo to Martin Bright at the Observer, she explains that she can’t publish it herself because she’s anti-war and won’t be taken seriously.

When Katharine is questioned about whether she leaked the memo, she is asked if she is anti-war. When she is questioned by the police, it is insinuated that she is anti-war and therefore an apologist for Saddam Hussein – and that this is because she’s married to a Muslim. She is left languishing without charge for a whole year, and because of the Official Secrets Act, she is not allowed to get legal advice without GCHQ permission or it is a further violation of the Act. Her husband, a Kurdish refugee who was seeking asylum, is suddenly detained without notice and is almost deported.

The head of prosecutions at the CPS, made it abundantly clear that on instruction of the Attorney General, the reason for her prosecution and the way she was treated was to make an example out of her. The disgraceful treatment of Katharine Gun for being a whistleblower, the draconian nature of the law and the Islamophobia attached to opposing war is a dominant feature throughout the film.

The film is a must-see. It puts the utter carnage brought to Iraq and the million civilians who were killed in the war and in the aftermath because of the devastation and destabilisation that the war brought, into the context of the lies that our leaders told for their own self-interest. It is a reminder when we are told about the necessity for war with Iran, or sold tales of humanitarian intervention in Syria and elsewhere, that it is no conspiracy theory that we are being lied to, in a deliberate, sophisticated and highly organised way. You will leave the film angry, but also reaffirmed that the anti-war movement is a central tenet of democracy in this country and we must do everything we can to build and strengthen it.

I should add a disclaimer if you’re watching it in the cinema, that there are scenes viewers may find distressing which feature Tony Blair and George Bush on a big screen and you may need to fight the urge to swear out loud.

Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.