This week’s commemoration of 9/11, as well as the called-off Camp David summit with the Taliban, reminded many about the origins of a generation of conflict that began 18 years ago.
What would soon be labeled “the war on terror” didn’t end in South Asia, however.
It moved to the Mideast.
“After the invasion of Afghanistan, when the focus suddenly turned toward Iraq, I suddenly thought, ‘What on earth had Iraq got to do with the war on terror?’ ” Katharine Gun told me this week. Gun is the British intelligence specialist who in 2003 leaked a U.S. National Security Agency e-mail about efforts to collect compromising information on U.N. Security Council members in order to pressure them to vote for a resolution on Iraq.
She’s also the subject of a gripping new film, “Official Secrets,” that premieres Friday at the Edina Theater.
Keira Knightley delivers a compelling portrayal of Gun, whose case became an incendiary international issue and a symbol of how the run-up to the war ran roughshod over the truth. The movie is riveting — part spy thriller, part legal drama and part political film — and many who see it may be left with the sense that after all these years the Iraq war debate remains just as raw today.
Gun described how she recoiled after receiving the memo. “My God, they’re going behind diplomats’ backs to try to secure this resolution which authorizes an invasion of Iraq, and it was an immediate red flag to me,” she recalled thinking.
“It was like, wow, if people knew all this talk about trying to get a diplomatic solution, it was just a cover so they could get an invasion, that would maybe slow it down or delay it; it would give weapons inspectors more time, and I thought straight away, ‘I’ve got to get this out.’ ”
So Gun gave the memo to an antiwar activist who delivered it to Martin Bright, a London Observer journalist who had to fight editors at his war-backing paper to publish the scoop. While he’s portrayed favorably in the film, Bright, in British understatement, said in an interview that the news media “didn’t necessarily cover ourselves in glory in the run-up to the Iraq war.”
Neither did the U.S. president and British prime minister who presided over the war’s build up. And the impact of their miscalculations reverberates today.
“One of the consequences of the run-up to the Iraq war was a loss of faith in the political class and a loss of faith in our institutions of government and indeed our institutions of law enforcement, intelligence and our judiciary,” Bright said. “The perception is that untruths were told — I think the consequences of that are catastrophic.”
Indeed, at least indirectly, a line can be drawn from the political upheaval over Britain’s entry in the war to the battle over its exit from the European Union. Brexit has paralyzed Parliament and convulsed the country, if not the continent, into a deepening political, economic and even cultural crisis.
British politics weren’t staid, but they were stable before then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, on the pretense of weapons of mass destruction, joined George W. Bush in the “Coalition of the Willing.” That partnership led to the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
“What happened as a result of the Iraq war, I never thought I would see in the U.K. — the flights to the extremes,” Bright said. He added that “one of the reasons for that is that the most prominent politician of the center ground, Tony Blair, has been largely discredited because of the Iraq war.”
Blair is “politically tarnished” and “there are ripple effects in distrust of politicians and distrust in the media,” Gun said. “You can’t just do as we used to in the past, which seems so much easier — you just switched on the BBC and you could listen to the report and you would just accept it, you would think, ‘That was correct and unbiased.’ ”
As depicted in “Official Secrets,” some of this distrust was sown from across the pond by Bush administration-friendly outlets such as the Drudge Report, which tried to debunk the memo by comparing Anglicized and Americanized spellings in the e-mail (the original was altered after an Observer editor spellchecked it).
U.S. media outlets backed off Bright’s story, which was soon overtaken by the invasion’s “shock and awe” narrative.
In some ways, Bright believes, the episode was a precursor to today’s tensions. “What strikes me is that what was happening with our story is not dissimilar to the way that stories are discredited,” he said. “Sort of an early example of how journalists getting out the truth are accused of ‘fake news.’ ”
Which means that the role of legitimate journalism is more important than ever.
“Now everybody is questioning everything,” Gun said, “so it’s up to journalists who really care about the truth to fight for their corner of the truth and journalistic freedom.”
Freedom was at stake for Gun when she confessed to the leak after facing charges under the U.K.’s Official Secrets Act. Her case, like the war itself, became a political Rorschach test of patriotism.
“If a rogue nation were to attack the U.K. physically, I would be a patriot, yes; I would try to defend the U.K.,” Gun said.
However, she added, “If my own country is subverting the rule of law and sending its own citizens, its military, into harm’s way on the basis of lies and propaganda, I would argue that being a patriot is calling out those lies and saying, ‘No, you don’t send our military into harm’s way with no legal justification.’ ”
As evidenced by this week’s transatlantic news narrative, including the ongoing debate over President Donald Trump’s and Joe Biden’s initial positions on the invasion, the impact of the Iraq war is still with us and likely will be consequential for both countries for years to come.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.