While so many have heard of whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden making history in recent years, few have heard the story of Katharine Gun, the subject of the film “Official Secrets,” directed and co-written by Gavin Hood. On the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” the “Official Secrets” director tells Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer that he learned about Gun from Ged Doherty, a producer he’d worked with on the film “Eye in the Sky” about drone warfare, and realized the whistleblower’s compelling story needed to be told.
In 2003, President George W. Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair were attempting to bolster international support for the invasion of Iraq, and seemingly would stop at nothing to go to war with Saddam Hussein. One of their lesser-known efforts came across Gun’s desk at the U.K.’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) one fateful day, forcing her to choose between her career as a government analyst and translator, and blowing the whistle on an unethical scheme.
“Katharine was working at GCHQ,” Hood tells Scheer, “she’s a young Mandarin translator, and this memo comes across her desk suggesting that she help gather intelligence on the non-permanent members on the [United Nations] Security Council.”
At the time, Hood explains, Blair and Bush were facing considerable resistance from permanent members of the Security Council, including France, China and Russia, with regards to a war with Iraq. So instead of trying to convince powerful allies, a plan was concocted to essentially blackmail the leaders of countries such as Chile, Mexico, Bulgaria and others, to get them to vote in favor of a U.N. Security Council Resolution for war with Iraq. Upon seeing such a dubious request, the GCHQ analyst decides to bring it to the attention of the British public, putting even her own husband at risk in doing so.
While Gun’s efforts paid off in some crucial ways, as we well know from some of the most shameful pages of recent Western history, the Iraq invasion was not stopped despite lack of support from the U.N. And, as Scheer points out, the result of the Iraq War is still playing out in horrific ways to this day.
“Official Secrets” is “really about the suppression of inconvenient truth on a grand level,” the Truthdig editor in chief says to the film director. “The biggest decision—do you go to war, do you kill people, do you cause mayhem—that’s what’s happened to Iraq. The Mideast is never going to be the same. You’ll never put it back together again.”
Gun’s own personal life was also irreparably impacted by her courageous decision.
“[Katharine] reached a point where she decided she would go and live in Turkey again with her husband … because she can’t get a job,” says Hood. “Even though she brought this truth to life, you go for a job interview, and—ah! You’re the person who blew the whistle on the security services. And she was right to, but we are so strangely suspicious.
“We have this confusion in our mind between admiration for the person who tells the truth, and a slight fear of them. And I don’t know why that is. Because we need people to tell the truth, or we’ll all end up in an authoritarian dictatorship. So I think she’s a wonderful example of an ordinary person doing something extraordinary.”
Listen to the full discussion between Hood and Scheer as the two talk about the reasons whistleblowing, in a better world, would be seen as unremarkable, whilst in our current political climate, it is something that puts a target on a hero’s back. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the credits.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
ROBERT SCHEER: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, a very important filmmaker, Gavin Hood. He’s done a number of really interesting movies, but the reason I say he’s important is he’s put together actually the best movie, or maybe one of the best things I’ve read or seen on the Gulf War. The Second Gulf War, the lying about weapons of mass destruction war, the George W. Bush war that unfortunately Colin Powell, a man I greatly respect, defended in going before the U.N., and so forth. The movie is called “Official Secrets.” And it centers on the much-maligned character of the whistleblower, but in this case, it’s a whistleblower you can’t attack the way people are attacking Chelsea Manning—or once attacked Daniel Ellsberg, who now is a hero, but people forget that he was facing 125 years in jail when Richard Nixon considered him a traitor. Here you have a character you simply cannot attack. A woman named Katharine Gun, a specialist in Mandarin Chinese, who was working at the British Intelligence Agency, the equivalent of our NSA, basically. And a memo comes across her desk, basically outlining how the NSA wants the British Intelligence Agency to cooperate with them in blackmailing representatives of nations on the Security Council–generally smaller ones–to support the U.S. going to war. And it was important for Britain, because without this war declaration, Tony Blair was hanging out to dry. And so I want to welcome this director, Gavin Hood. How did you come to make this film? And then we’ll get to the point of it.
GAVIN HOOD: Well, firstly, thanks very much for having me, Bob. Yes, I’d made a film called “Eye in the Sky” with a producer called Ged Doherty. And we’d enjoyed working together. And one day Ged called me up, and he said Gavin, have you ever heard of Katharine Gun? And it’s one of those moments where you feel you ought to have heard of someone, because that’s why he’s asking me, and I went—no, I haven’t. He said, well, just Google her and call me back, you know, when you’re ready.
RS: Let me just stop you right there. Because I have great guilt; I thought I knew everything about all this. I went to see your movie at the Writer’s Guild—I didn’t know who Katharine Gun was. And I was blown away. I’m not putting on—you know, she’s another Edward Snowden, she’s—we have had great whistleblowers. But talk about an unsung hero.
GH: Yes, she was. I mean, the thing that I like about Katharine—as I say, I Googled her, I called him right back. I said wait a minute, I really would like to meet this person. How come I don’t know about Katharine Gun? And part of the reason is because Katharine is actually very shy and humble and quiet, and not someone who naturally seeks out the limelight in any way. And what I found interesting about this story—because I lived through the Iraq War, and I thought I was, like you, reasonably knowledgeable about what had happened. And I had no idea about this little story that turns out to be quite a big story. Katharine was working at GCHQ, she’s a young Mandarin translator, and this memo comes across her desk suggesting that she help gather intelligence on the non-permanent members on the Security Council. Because the U.K. and the United States are saying, we need a U.N. resolution for war. And of course, China and Russia and France are saying, we don’t think this war’s a good idea. So these are the permanent members, and the non-permanent members that rotate on that Security Council are usually smaller countries; they rotate every two years. In this case it was Chile, Mexico, Angola, Guinea, Bulgaria, I think, and Pakistan. Well, you know, maybe if we lean on these guys a bit, they’ll vote in favor of this U.N. resolution, Security Council resolution for war. And one of the reasons that resolution was so important to Tony Blair was because his chief of the armed forces, Admiral Boyce, was refusing to set a foot into Iraq without clear, legal advice from the attorney general of the United Kingdom, Lord Goldsmith, saying that his troops would never be charged with a war crime because this was a legal war. And without getting into the weeds, I’ll quickly just say there’s two ways that that war would have been legal. One is a U.N. resolution for war, where we’re all collectively going to go and take down this dreadful man, Saddam Hussein—and no one’s shedding any crocodile tears for him. But the other way is, you have to prove self-defense. The good old-fashioned self-defense, which is why when they didn’t get that U.N. resolution for war, the WMD, weapons of mass destruction argument became what they relied on. “We’re going to be attacked by Iraq, they’re so dangerous, we have to take them out.” And those were the two sort of ways that they were trying to legally justify invading Iraq.
RS: But let’s just be very specific here. We are talking about a moment in which U.N. inspectors are in Iraq looking for these weapons, and they’re not finding them. And so what do you do when you don’t have the evidence to justify your going to war? After all, this war is supposed to be necessary because of the 9/11 attack on the United States–
RS: —is one reason. OK. The fact is, there was no connection ever shown between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, or [Osama] bin Laden; on the contrary, it was the one country in the Middle East where Al Qaeda could not operate.
GH: Yes, because Saddam was a sort of secular, national socialist, if you like. I mean, he was like—he was—the Ba’ath Party was not a religious party, and he would have risked being thrown out by someone like Bin Laden. So the last person he wanted to be involved—neither of them, you know, particularly savory characters, but certainly not friends.
RS: Right. But this is not the point. We’re talking about national security, so savory or unsavory, you know, the U.S., Britain, everyone else is in bed with all sorts of unsavory characters. This is supposed to be because the security of the world, and of the American people, primarily—on George W. Bush’s idea—have been threatened by this attack on the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon. OK. They go to war against a country that was opposed to al Qaeda, or the leader was opposed to al Qaeda. The other justification is there are supposed to be weapons of mass destruction.
GH: And there aren’t any.
RS: And what I find so amazing about this, the one lousy review you’ve gotten—
GH: [Laughs] Thank you for saying it’s “the one lousy,” because yes, we’re lucky most of them are fresh, but yes, we did get a little knock from our friends—
RS: You got very good reviews. And you know, in papers like the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. But the New York Times has the chutzpah [Laughter] to run an attack on this movie, on the pettiest cinematographic, almost the lighting or the casting or something, conveniently ignoring that what you’re exposing are war crimes—war crimes—that the New York Times was complicit in. The New York Times had to apologize over the whole Judy Miller scandal of actually enforcing, not only carrying the propaganda of the George W. Bush, but goading the George W. Bush administration to go to war. Then had to apologize—
GH: They did apologize eventually, for falling for this nonsense, yeah.
RS: —falling for this malarkey, yet they do a review—you don’t have to endorse this. I know you’re a filmmaker—
GH: [Laughs] Bless you, Bob, but I—
RS: ––you need good reviews, and so forth. Maybe they’ll come up with another—
GH: No, it’s fine.
RS: But let me just say, I am so offended by this. You know, because after all, you read these reviewers for some guidance as to whether this is a movie you should go see or not. They don’t even mention that this thing goes to the center of the whole deception that the New York Times was involved with. I’m not going to belabor this point—
GH: I’m just going to let them—you know, the film has to stand on its own merits, and if they didn’t like it, they’re perfectly entitled not to like it. Fortunately, most of our other reviews are positive, so that’s good. But I think your point is right. I mean, you know, that particular review does focus on what seemed to be somewhat petty issues, and doesn’t in any way—as the L.A. Times does, or most of the other reviews—wrestle with this, the question. I mean, the film just doesn’t fall into an easy narrative structure. That is true. You know, in the conventional cinematic way, your leading character is a hero who overcomes adversity, beats the bad guy, makes some triumphant speech, or pulls out a sword in the end, beats the bad guy, and sets the world right. And this film just wouldn’t, couldn’t, and doesn’t do that, because it’s based on real events—
RS: Oh—let me defend it, by the way—
GH: No, I’m not trying to attack my own—[Laughs]
RS: This is a—no, but what you’re talking about is really a Type A, masculine image of the hero.
RS: You have this incredibly dignified, very smart, measured heroine, or hero, in Katharine Gun. A person who makes a point in the film that all of the reviewers seem to have ignored. Because we always get to the question of where is your loyalty. Was Edward Snowden loyal? Was Daniel Ellsberg loyal? And Katharine Gun, in the film—and she doesn’t have this bravado; she’s not saving the world—she just says, this is wrong.
GH: Yeah, exactly.
RS: You know, there’s Tony Blair, there’s George W. Bush, they’re telling the U.N. Security Council there’s an imminent danger, therefore we can’t wait for the result of the U.N. inspectors. We have to go to war because of an imminent danger. And she ways, my loyalty is not to the British government or the American government. My loyalty is to the people of this country.
GH: That’s right. She makes—she said that expressly, yeah.
RS: Expressly. And let’s just mention the backdrop to this. Margaret Thatcher had pushed through an Official Secrets Act. That’s why this movie—should mention the title, “Official Secrets”-—is really about the suppression of inconvenient truth on a grand level. The biggest decision—do you go to war, do you kill people, do you cause mayhem—that’s what’s happened to Iraq. The Mideast is never going to be the same. You’ll never put it back together again. You’ve put the Saudis in a premier position, and the alternative to them is Iran. And this whole idea you were creating a moderate alternative is in the trash can—
GH: —Western democratic state. It was—it was just naive, actually, at the very least—stupid and—
RS: So it’s an absolute disaster—no, no—well, deeply cynical and stupid. But the fact of the matter is, and I’m objecting to what this, the review in the New York Times—and yes, I’m picking on them. Because they bear real responsibility for the war; that doesn’t mean they have to censor their reviewers, but it’s just—I would think it’s—
GH: It’s ironic in some way, that they’re—
RS: Yeah, you would just think someone would say, but wait a minute, the main point of this movie is that the officials of both England and the United States were lying in this open way at the U.N. And if they didn’t get the resolution, England wasn’t going to be able to follow suit. And this woman is sitting there, doing what you would hope every decent person in the world would do. Because we can’t treat whistleblowing as an expected, exceptional act; it should be the norm.
GH: Well, I think this is—thank you, Bob. I mean, I think what drew me to this story was that Katharine Gun is more like us than we would think. She’s an ordinary, young person going to her job. She happens to work for a national security agency, but she says—you know, I said to her at one point, why did you take this job? She said, well, the truth is I answered an ad in the Guardian newspaper—which is a liberal newspaper!—there they’d placed an ad for translators. And you know, translators who are very, very good at more than one language are hard to come by, apparently. And these are the sort of people you need in these agencies if you’re really going to listen in from a signals intelligence point of view and get accurate information. You need people who are steeped in another culture. But right there lies their dilemma, you see—and Katharine has talked about it—which is, if you’re going to need people who are, in a sense, multicultural, to help you gather information on perhaps a terrorist plot or whatever, you need to be sure that you play by the rules before you lose the loyalty of those very people that you need. Because if you start behaving as if the only thing you care about is your agenda, and you don’t really care about the truth of what’s happening in Iraq or whatever, there are people whose help you are seeking who actually do care about Iraq, or whatever other country they are—you know, whose language they are well versed in. They in a sense become multicultural citizens. And so expecting—there was one parliamentary committee member [laughs] who interviewed Katherine, essentially sort of the idea was that she just wasn’t British enough. And her answer was, well, you have a dilemma there. Because I am British. But I also have spent a tremendous amount of time living in other cultures, and that’s why I’m useful to you. But you must understand that I have respect for those other cultures, and if you start bending the rules and lying, it’s going to make people like me uncomfortable.
RS: But why doesn’t it make everyone uncomfortable?
GH: It should make everyone uncomfortable, you’re quite right.
RS: I mean, first of all, there’s validity, obvious validity, to what you’re saying. It applies to people, mostly on the analytics side or analysis side of the CIA—
RS: And Edward Snowden was one of them. Daniel Ellsberg was another. Daniel Ellsberg actually had been in the Marines, but you know, a well-educated guy, read the Pentagon Papers, said this is information the American public—
GH: Needs to know.
RS: And at the time, he was vilified by Richard Nixon, but now he’s considered a hero. But in each case—
GH: And I think Katharine is the same, by the way.
RS: Oh, Katharine’s an—
GH: And Ellsberg has said that often.
RS: Oh, not only has he said it, he said what she did was far more important than what he did. Ellsberg, whom I have interviewed, we’ve done a podcast. I know him quite well, I was—actually attended as a reporter the Pentagon Papers trial. And at the time, you know, a lot of people said well, why did he do this, national security, is he embarrassing the troops, blah blah blah. You know, none of which turned out to be true. What really turned out to be true is there was no basis for the war, and the people pursuing the war knew it.
GH: And the same applies here, exactly the same, yeah.
RS: And so the question I asked them, and Ellsberg asked: Why are there so few whistleblowers? That’s really why I wanted to do this podcast. I want people to watch your movie, “Official Secrets.” It’s open, out now. No, really, I think it’s an incredible movie, I’m not going to go on about that. And really I think it’s—it’s just one of the best movies I’ve seen about politics of any kind. It’s measured, it doesn’t claim more than it knows. So I’ve given my pitch. But that’s not why I’m doing the podcast. I’m doing the podcast because I think, as with your work on drones, or “Rendition” and other things, you’re up against a really basic question of what do we mean by a citizen of this world? What do we mean by somebody who cares? What do we mean by—
GH: Loyalty, as you said earlier. Yeah.
RS: I’ll go even further, though. At a time when it’s the presumption of our legendary newspapers, or our—you know, the old print publications—that they somehow have real news, or, you know. And that here’s the president of the United States, Donald Trump, saying “fake news,” fake news, New York Times, his big argument. Well, the fact is, we’ve always had fake news. We’ve always had people lie to us. And the difference is, why don’t people in the know come out and tell us? And the—
RS: —persistent thing, I just want to put it out there—
GH: ––mm-hmm, go, yeah—
RS: —by the way, I know you have to go speak at the—
GH: —no, no, this is great, keep going, keep going—
RS: ––I’ll go as long as you want. The fact of the matter is, the persistent concern that I have, as a journalist who’s covered this stuff for half a century, you know, is why are there so few whistleblowers. That’s what really gets to me. Because you would think what Katharine Gun did—and her name should become a household name—should be the norm. You’re sitting there and saying, my god, these people are lying to the world. They’re inventing a war. Lots of people—you don’t have to be an expert in lots of languages, which she is, and a very smart person, which she is. You would think any decent person, any ordinary telephone operator who intercepted this, should say: “Wow! This is wrong.”
GH: But I think—and you’re absolutely right, but here’s where I sort of approach it with some humility, and why I think Katharine’s a hero. We all have jobs, most people; you have to pay your bills. And for most people, when something comes across their desk—even if they’re not a spy, just someone working for Enron, working for Wall Street, working for a studio. The question that intrigued me in the film is: If you or I had something come across our desk that said the organization we’re working for is up to no good—they’re dodging their taxes, they’re doing this, they’re—whatever they are, when do you speak up? And Katharine—at the risk of losing your job. And Katharine risked—
RS: Is that a question?
GH: Well, no, no, I’m saying it’s—
RS: Well, let me just answer it, and then you can do the whole convoluted [Laughter]—I say you speak up right there and then.
GH: Exactly. You’re right. But I’m saying that most people wrestle with that. And they’re only risking losing their job. Katharine risked not only losing her job, but her freedom as well, and she had the courage to speak up. My point is, you’re right, and she is a shining example of someone who was willing, for the sake of what was right and for her own conscience, to risk not only her job, but her freedom.
RS: Not to give away the movie, but it does have a happy ending of sorts. Not happy in the sense that the war is stopped, this irrational—today, I doubt if you could find five people in London who actually would support that war, or what Blair did. Blair is actually an unpopular figure in connection with it. And yet, this one human being—I have to get—I mean, she wasn’t the only one that saw this memo.
GH: No, hundreds of people saw that memo, and yet as you point out, she was the only one who spoke up.
RS: Right. So in one of the reviews that I liked very much, the L.A. Times review by Kenneth Turan—who, full disclosure, he is my ex-brother-in-law and I feel very close to him—very good review. But he would describe her as a zealot. She’s not a zealot! She’s a decent, honest human being, a citizen.
RS: Right? And we have to use that language, why? Because she’s so exceptional. So somebody who is exceptional, doing what any decent person should do, we call a zealot. But the fact of the matter is, we have a very low standard now of what we’re expecting from people. What Edward Snowden did, for goodness’ sake, everyone should be expected to do that.
GH: Or Reality Winner, for that matter. Reality Winner, who you know, who’s not as lucky as Katharine, and is sitting in prison for telling us that, you know, the 2016 elections were hacked.
RS: Yeah, or Chelsea Manning, who after all is in jail now because they are using her to break Julian Assange. We have a replay of the Pentagon Papers, Julian Assange is like the Washington Post, the publisher—
GH: No, you’re right, he’s a publisher, not a whistleblower. Yeah, you pointed that out quite rightly.
RS: Yeah, and Chelsea Manning, who was the whistleblower, and who revealed that we were killing civilians—“we” being the U.S. government—was killing civilians, killing reporters, shooting at innocent people, and enjoying it. And that gets revealed by a rather low-ranking member of the military force, and she’s now sitting once again in jail, even though she was, you know, pardoned on the other charge. It just seems to me that the movie is better than the way you’re presenting it.
GH: Than the way I’m presenting—[Laughs] No, I don’t want to not present—I love the movie, and that’s why I made it for the last few years. But you’re being very kind, thank you, Bob.
RS: No, I’m not being kind. I’m saying the movie got to me—
GH: Good! That’s really good for me.
RS: And it got to me because I don’t think any honest person, looking at this movie—I mean, they’ve managed to blacken the reputation of Julian Assange. Actually, that’s why the Pentagon Papers case fell apart. Why? Because the U.S. government, under Richard Nixon, was—as part of the dirty tricks that led to Watergate, broke into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychoanalyst’s office to get dirt on him. OK? So they’ve managed to dirty people, these heroic people. Some of them survived, like Ellsberg did. Julian Assange might not; he’s in jail, god knows what the Brits are doing to him before they pass him over to the Americans. But the key thing here is your heroine here, you know, Katharine Gun, seems to me unassailable in any respect. She is—and that’s why I object to the word zealot—she’s just somebody reading and saying, wait a minute, I’m watching the telly here, I’m watching Colin Powell lie to the U.N.—right? I’m watching my government, Tony Blair, I’m watching George Bush lie. And I know what they’re trying to do is blackmail—let’s go back to the story—
GH: Well, she gets that memo, yeah.
RS: Yeah, she gets a memo that they’re going to try to blackmail the lesser members—the temporary members of the Security Council on, what, personal stuff about their drinking or womanizing—
GH: Yeah—to hack their personal information, to see if they can dig up dirt. And they were at the same time also dispatching various people into those smaller countries to suggest that, you know, maybe we withdraw some funding or we lean on you economically. There was pressure coming on those countries from many sides. And but what happened is, when that memo was leaked, and when it was published in the Observer newspaper, the one thing that Katharine did achieve—and perhaps we don’t give her enough credit for this—was that when that memo was leaked, Chile, Mexico, all of those smaller countries were so outraged that they refused to even go to a vote. So they—the vote never happened. If they had [unclear], if Katharine hadn’t revealed that memo, who knows whether Tony Blair and George Bush may or may not have got the U.N. resolution that they really craved? In which case they would have had perfect cover, and the weapons of mass destruction would have been a non-issue. But the fact is, because there was no vote on that U.N. Security Council, that was why suddenly the weapons of mass destruction became so important. We rushed to war, and Katharine’s story, in a way, got trounced by a bigger story. Because we stopped being interested in why we’re going to war, and suddenly we’re just interested in watching bombs falling on Baghdad like we’re all watching some video game. And so I think that’s why it’s taken time to go back and ask the question, well, how did we get into this war? And suddenly Katharine’s story comes back around, after 16 years. I mean, I’m—the only thing that I think Katharine is a little sad about, and I don’t want to give the movie away, but in a way, her legal defense was shut down. And she never got her day in court. And in some ways, this movie is an opportunity for her to have her day in court, and her lawyer Ben Emmerson to have his day in court.
RS: And again, without giving away this movie, “Official Secrets”—which I urge people to watch, because we’re not doing it justice, frankly. It’s really laid out in the movie in a way—I’m hitting on things that interest me, that’s what I get to do here—
GH: [Laughs] It’s your show, mate!
RS: No, no, but it is really not in any way—I’m trying to get people to watch the movie, it’s not a substitute for watching it. Because it’s a great—it’s a great history lesson on manipulation. And I think it’s one of the more egregious examples of fake news coming—everybody forgets, fake news doesn’t just come from some isolated, Russian bot creator, or whatever. Fake news comes, most effectively, from governments. Of every kind. They have huge numbers of people, very skilled in creating fake news, selectively leaking it, and so forth. And what happened in this case is they had one kind of fake story, and it wasn’t gelling, and so forth—
GH: Well, they set up that Office of Special Plans, right? So when they weren’t getting the intel they wanted from the CIA—because many in the CIA, Scott Ritter being an example you mentioned earlier—I mean, there were people going, this is—the intel you want doesn’t exist. Well, that brings up an interesting question, because of course Rumsfeld then, and Bush, set up the Office of Special Plans with the neocons and Wolfowitz and Doug Feith and so on. And then they have a man called Abram Shulsky, whose real philosophy of life—and I think this is interesting in terms of this story—is he is quoted as saying, and you can look it up on Wikipedia, it’s not even a mystery. His version of what intelligence is, is he says the goal of intelligence is not truth, but victory. Now, that’s a military intelligence model. And that’s kind of chilling, because the traditional way we think of intelligence within the CIA is that the CIA, in theory, is supposed to be walled off from political influence, gather intelligence, and present their best understanding of what’s really going on in a particular place on the ground. That’s what our ideal CIA is supposed to do. And when folks who are following that kind of path in the CIA are not giving Bush what he wants, and not giving Rumsfeld what he wants, they literally set up the Office of Special Plans, a small unit in the Pentagon, staffed it with people who are neocons, and say this is the goal: the goal is to make regime change in Iraq. Give us what we need. And now you’re into total fake news; now you’re fake intelligence. And so there is a split right there. The military intelligence model is usually used because you’re already at war, and now we must win by whatever means. We must drop pamphlets, propaganda on those Germans, to tell them whatever we need to tell them, to get them to surrender. But that’s not the approach you should take when you’re leading up to whether you should go to war or not. You should be trying to gather the details of whether someone like Saddam Hussein, as much as you may not like him, is he actually a threat to this country. And the answer, as we now know, was absolutely not. So why are we drumming up this fake intelligence? Because you have an overarching agenda, which in hindsight is completely naive, that you’re going to bring Western-style democracy to the Middle East. And, you know, maybe be able to take your military bases out of Saudi Arabia, and calm the people who don’t want the bases in the Holy Land, and put them in Iraq, and then we’ll be right up against Israel and Iran, and we can bring democracy to the Middle East. Lovely idea, Tony; bloody naive if you’ve never been backpacking. You know that tribal loyalties are never going to sustain that. And so we get lied into a war. But what’s really upsetting is the way that Office of Special Plans was complicit in manufacturing intelligence. And that’s what Katharine felt when she got that memo. She says so beautifully in the film, and said in that interrogation: I don’t work for the government. I work for the British people, because governments change. And my loyalty—and you raised loyalty—is not to governments. It’s not, as Donald Trump would have it, to the president. It’s to the constitutional underpinnings of the democracy.
RS: Well, it’s also to honesty and truth. I mean, look, the movie comes up against the basic contradiction that you as a Brit should be familiar with. The basic question—I’ve raised it over and over on this podcast with different people, some who work for the CIA and so forth. Can you—the basic challenge of the founders of this country, in the United States, of the government, was the concern about being an empire. And what had happened to the British empire, and that extended to their poor behavior here in the colonies. And what information, and how easy it is to lie about what you’re doing elsewhere. If you’re doing it at home, people can observe; they can, you know, take a bus over there and see if it’s really true or not, or so forth. Or experience it, or so forth. But when you talk about foreign adventures, you lie with impunity. And what was interesting is this woman, Katharine Gun, who is sitting there–she is at the center of knowledge. That’s what I have found from interviewing a number of people who were in the CIA, or in the NSA or so forth. They’re at the center of this information. That’s what happened to Ellsberg. Ellsberg read the Pentagon Papers report, and he says, wait a minute! This is information about what’s supposedly going on over in Vietnam, this distant place that most people didn’t even know about when it started. And it’s all been a tissue of lies. You know, how can we be a republic, self-governed, if we are lied to with such impunity, right? That was the challenge.
GH: Right. Yep, the same thing here.
RS: That’s what your heroine—yeah, she’s sitting there saying, well, wait a minute, I know this to be all lies. I’m here, I see it. We don’t have evidence, there’s no support of what the New York Times ends up carrying, that there are weapons of mass destruction–no, there are not, you know. It’s not true. I know it’s not true; I’m sitting here, I’m privileged to have this information. Now something comes across and says, we’re going to cover up these lies by, you know, arm-wrestling these representatives of smaller nations to give us another reason for going to war, and justification. So, really, what we’re talking about is the survival not just of your power or something, of common sense. Because what the neocons were saying about Iraq was all silly, stupid, uninformed. Oh, democracy will flourish, and we’re backing these really good guys, and we’ll reconstruct the state. And it was all garbage, because—and in fact, just the opposite happened. People who were pro-Iran, and the Shiite majority finally got its voice, and—
GH: No, it’s been—there’s no question it’s been a disaster.
RS: Yeah, and Iran now is, you got two powers that you don’t like, Saudi Arabia and Iran, contesting for power. And unfortunately, Trump is on the side of Saudi Arabia, which is even less appealing than Iran. And so you make a hash of logic, and that’s really—
GH: And do you think it was—it’s so hard to fathom. Do you think Blair and Bush were just utterly naive? Because you know, nobody puts their head on their pillow going, “I’m a bad guy!” You know, they must have believed in their hearts that somehow the ends would justify the means. And so they get trapped more and more into the lie, because they are so determined to achieve this goal, because they think the democracy is going to flourish. Let the means be damned, you know. It’s almost—I’m not trying to be sympathetic towards them, but when you look at it as a writer and an actor, you go, what is this. If you were asked to play the character of Bush, or play the character of Blair, they don’t put their hands—go, ah, rubbing my hands together, I’m going to be the bad guy—not at all. They had to have utter faith. And it’s hubris. I mean, there’s a word for it: hubris. This naive sense that they’re so right, that the way they go about achieving their end doesn’t really matter. Lie, manufacture intelligence, tell the public whatever you think they need to hear, because once we achieve that goal, everything will be fine. And it just shows that the—you know, the way you go about things does matter. And one should never be so certain about your own end results, that you think achieving it, the way you achieve it doesn’t matter. I mean, one of the things—
GH: —sorry, I was just—
RS: Well, since you’ve turned this into an interview with me—
RS: Let me just say, I think you’re making a very dangerous assumption.
GH: Am I?
RS: That you have adults watching the store. I remember when I was a kid growing up in the Bronx, you know, they’d say you can’t walk away from the store and let your nephew watch it; you have to have adults watching it, or they’ll give away all the candy or something. You know, and you’re assuming Blair and Bush are serious, thoughtful adults—
GH: No, no, no, I’m—
RS: ––watching world affairs. And I think of them as rather shallow politicians, whatever their IQ; Blair is probably smarter than George W. Bush, who knows. Probably better schooled, maybe, although George—as Oliver Stone—I thought he captured the banality of George W. Bush quite brilliantly in his movie.
GH: I do think they’re banal, arrogant, hubristic, ah, entitled individuals. That’s the problem, that’s what I’m saying.
RS: And what gives them cover, what gives them cover is this thing I said earlier, foreign policy, national security. This is like this black box you don’t open. And then somebody comes through and says, “Oh, if we don’t act now, all hell is going to break loose, and you don’t know what I know.” I interviewed these people over and over, you know; I was in Vietnam at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin, and I actually bought it, because they seemed so certain. You find out 20 years later, I’m sitting at the L.A. Times and we finally get the secret document. And I went to my publisher, who had been in the Johnson White House—a terrific guy, Tom Johnson–I said, did you know this? He said well, I kind of—didn’t really know. I said, but so they lied! They lied 20 years ago, they went before the American public on the radio, and said we’ve been attacked at the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam, and it didn’t happen, and they knew already at that moment there was no evidence to support it.
GH: Right, and you—
RS: So then you have to ask yourself the question, would you trust somebody to buy a used car for you? Would you trust them to do anything—
GH: No. And you’re quite right.
RS: —that has such disrespect for looking at the facts, looking at the—no! They’re not, it’s not considered adult behavior. It’s driven by career, covering your behind, ambition—
GH: Entitlement, hubris. This is what I think. This is why I say that what’s so dangerous—
RS: And she, by the way, to take this to the conclusion, Katharine Gun—this movie, by the way, is worth watching just to experience a true hero, Katharine Gun. True hero. Because she is the adult in the room.
GH: Yep, very well said.
RS: And it just comes out, without bravado, without great flowery speeches. We’ve been going on and on—
GH: Well, thank you for that, Bob.
RS: —and talking to each other like this, and yet she is so clear in the movie—
GH: She’s really just doing, as you pointed out at the beginning, what our parents taught us to do as kids: tell the truth. She just feels she has to tell the truth. And then of course what I love is that she actually has moments where she goes, oh my god, maybe I don’t have to say any more. I’ve said enough, and I’ll get away with this. And then, as her friends begin to be interrogated, because someone’s leaked, she has another crisis of conscience. Which is: if I don’t speak up, my friends are going to be tarred with this thing, and ruin their careers. And so, once again: tell the truth. And she tells the truth again, when she confesses. And I just think there’s something we’re taught—I have young children; what do you want to tell them? You’re going to tell them, tell the truth. And then yet when you get out in the world—well, but maybe you can’t really tell the truth, we should lie to the people—no, we can tell the truth.
RS: Well, you’re going to have to also tell them that careerism doesn’t trump everything.
RS: And—but the interesting thing about—Al Gore, the best thing Al Gore ever did was go along with the title of his movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” on global warming. The fact is, the truth is often inconvenient.
GH: Yeah. And sometimes it puts you at great risk. That’s the only thing I’m—and most people would struggle in these circumstances if they were afraid of losing their job. Because a job is something important. And why Katharine is so brave is because she risked not only losing a job, but her freedom.
RS: OK, this is a good thing on which to end this, because you know, you have to go speak after your movie here at USC, where it’s being shown over at the cinema school. I appreciate your taking the time to come here. But let me just say, what offended me again—I hate to harp—I don’t hate to, actually, I’m enjoying harping on the New York Times review. What bothered me is they put down the character of Katharine Gun, not just the way [she was] played by the actress.
GH: Yeah, Keira Knightley, who’s wonderful in it.
RS: Yeah. But the very idea of this character. And yet, I thought to myself, you have just looked at heroism in the face, and you don’t recognize it. You know, where was the person at the New York Times, where you work? I’m not blaming you, film critic, for not getting it. Who there—who there, at the New York Times, stood up and said: “What we are doing is wrong, lying about or distorting the picture on weapons of mass destruction. And you should stop, and I will publicly criticize you.” You know, Chris Hedges, who writes now for Truthdig, the publication I edit, but he lost his job at the New York Times for being one of those truth-tellers.
GH: Well, there is exactly the point. That’s why I say Katharine’s story is inspiring to ask us the question, in whatever organization we work, whether it be the New York Times, or a law firm, or a studio, or a hairdressing salon—I don’t care where you work. When you see something going wrong, a lie being told, a fraud being committed, you know, something wrong—when do you speak up? And what’s so frustrating, as you pointed out when you say this is about whistleblowers, is we on the one hand, we say we admire people who speak the truth. And yet when whistleblowers do speak the truth, so often they are punished. I mean, even Katharine, having said all this, and—she reached a point where she decided she would go and live in Turkey again—with her husband, who’s an amazing man and they have a lovely daughter. She went back to Turkey, because she can’t get a job. Even though she brought this truth to life, you go for a job interview, and—ah! You’re the person who blew the whistle on the security services. And she was right to. But we are so strangely suspicious, we have this confusion in our mind between admiration for the person who tells the truth, and a slight fear of them. And I don’t know why that is. Because we need people to tell the truth, or we’ll all end up in an authoritarian dictatorship. So I think she’s a wonderful example of an ordinary person doing something extraordinary. And I take your point completely, that it shouldn’t be extraordinary. It should be what we all do. And yet we don’t.
RS: Yes. And then finally, though, if she’s the messenger, why do we shoot the messenger?
RS: You know. And, you know, we do it because, again, this wonderful phrase, the inconvenient truth. Yes, it costs you. You know, look at—I mean, OK, Daniel Ellsberg, who is just a marvelous human being, as far as I’m concerned.
GH: Yeah, I’ve met him, he’s great. And he’s very fond of Katharine, and very supportive of Katharine. And has been very supportive of this movie, and came to see the film in San Francisco, and has spoken very kindly of the film.
RS: But I remember at the time, his colleagues at the RAND Corporation, which was a U.S. Air Force-funded research center and so forth, condemned him for interfering with their relationship to armed forces contracts. And you know, the question—I mean, I was stunned at that time, because by then, everyone knew the Vietnam War made no sense, and the whole development of it made no sense. And yet—and they had the documents in their own defense department that showed it made no sense, you know. And yet, people again, it gets to that word, he was making their career choices awkward.
GH: Well, this goes to your question of loyalty. Where does loyalty lie? And as a thematic idea in the film, I mean, Katharine is loyal to her conscience, but she is disloyal to her government; but she is loyal to the British people. She’s arguably somewhat disloyal to her husband, because she puts that marriage and his life at risk, because suddenly his wife is saying all these things, and suddenly they’re exposed. But she is loyal to a simple thing called conscience. And you’d think that would be normal, but it’s difficult, because so many people are loyal to something else—career, money, whatever it is. And those–so I don’t make light of that, because I do think people’s jobs matter. But that’s why it’s an act of courage. And we all need to be a little more courageous. If we could all be a little more courageous, the world would certainly be a better place.
RS: OK, I’m talking to Gavin Hood, who is the director and one of the writers of “Official Secrets.” I’m hoping it’s a movie that will have Oscar—
GH: Ah, bless you, thank you, Bob. [Laughs] Thank you.
RS: —no, for very good reason. I don’t know how—I can’t predict how a movie like this will do at the box office, or what have you. But I do think if the academy has any serious concern about showing courage in filmmaking, and I think great insight. But I’m going to ask you one final question, because you’ve done a number of movies, and a couple of the themes really come together. And it has a lot to do with anonymous death. The exercise of power in a way that we don’t have to see the victims. We don’t have to think of the–so much of this happens in that dark world, hidden from our observation. So take a few of your more recent movies that have that similar theme.
GH: Yes. Well, “Eye in the Sky” has a similar theme; “Rendition,” certainly. Here’s the thing. People often ask me, Why do you–why are you drawn to these themes? And the only answer I suppose I can come up with is, I grew up in apartheid South Africa in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I know what it’s like to live under real authoritarianism. Where quite literally, through the ‘80s while I was a young law student, we watched as the rule of law was systematically set aside, in particular with regard to emergency and security legislation. Meaning there was a time when, you know, as you are in most countries, you’re entitled at least to a trial if you’re arrested under the Official Secrets Act. Well, we reached a point in South Africa where at first it went to a 90-day detention without trial; then it went to 180 days, when the Supreme Court kind of kicked that back and said, you can’t rearrest someone. Oh, well, then we’ll take them for 180 days. The Supreme Court kicked that back. And then it was, well, now we will actually legislate under the state of emergency for indefinite detention without a right of a trial, and without the right of access to a legal representative. That’s how bad it can get. And it happens real fast. When the population gives over to the idea, as you were saying, that national security is more important than anything else. And all of a sudden, you’re living in what’s effectively a dictatorship. And so perhaps—and when I was a young—perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to these themes. And I will say now, as I’m an American citizen with my children born here, when I was a young law student in South Africa, we studied the U.S. Constitution, and all of those founding documents. Because we wanted something like that. And so for me, I actually regard this film as a patriotic endeavor. Not—some people say, well, you’re criticizing America. No, I’m not. I’m shining a light on what’s supposed to be great about America, which is that we have founding documents that say we have checks and balances; the executive should not, as Trump is trying to do now, be grabbing as much authority as possible. And when you look at a film like “Official Secrets,” I hope you see that it’s just an ordinary citizen, as you say, doing what’s right to preserve what’s supposed to be our democratic government. We are supposed to be ruled by the people, not by authoritarian dictators. So maybe that’s why I’m drawn to these themes, because I know what it’s like to live in a country where what perhaps many Americans take for granted is taken away.
RS: Well said. And on that note—
GH: On that note! That rather cheerful note. [Laughs]
RS: No, I think it is a cheerful note. And by the way, we owe a lot of that good stuff—at least in the Bill of Rights, but much of the spirit of the Constitution—to Tom Paine. Who was, after all, a renegade who came over from England and understood even somewhat limited monarchy by that time, thanks to the Magna Carta.
GH: Well, it’s the renegade who refuses to be subjugated.
RS: And I just—you know, it’s getting—the film’s getting very good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s gotten goo-d–what, Wall Street Journal, other papers. So I didn’t mean to pick on the New York Times to suggest that—[Laughter] I did mean to pick on the New York Times’ particular review, but I didn’t mean to suggest this movie is not finding a warm reception. You know, you got a standing ovation at the Writers Guild. Everyone that I’ve talked to has already seen the movie, certainly liked it. I want to put myself in that camp, as someone who actually found it—you know, it’s interesting. I found it quite thrilling. Because it doesn’t have the old macho, male lead, you know, of some heroic person who sees the truth and then acts on it. You have a quiet woman, well spoken, effective, thoughtful, modest human being, just being a—having a steel backbone and saying, no, this is wrong, and I’m not going along.
GH: Yeah. There’s something very simple about that. And if you’re expecting a kind of classical hero’s journey, where someone dons the cape and beats up the bad guy and changes the world forever—which seems to be, every time you have to be, the world has to be under threat, and you save the day. Katharine doesn’t. What she saves, if you’re being sort of sentimental about it, is her own conscience and her own soul, arguably. She does what’s right for her. And she just said, I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t speak out. And maybe if more of us felt that way, we wouldn’t get ourselves into so much trouble. Never mind this big political feeling, just on a purely individual level. We all have to put our head on a pillow and say, how do I feel about myself? And sometimes we go too far down a track of doing the wrong thing, and then we’re in trouble. Katharine just reminds us that doing the right thing is actually good for your heart.
RS: Yeah, exactly. And since you brought up South Africa, let’s end on that note. What impressed me, I remember when Nelson Mandela was finally released, and he came here to Los Angeles. But I had thought about all those years he spent in prison and so forth.
GH: On Robben Island. Yeah.
RS: And what was amazing to me was how much of that non-macho quality he had, of a sense of limits, and consideration, and balance, and forgiveness, and all of that. And your hero—I don’t like to say “heroine,” because it implies it’s gender-based. But the hero of this film, Katharine Gun, is really exemplary. So that’s all I’m going to say.
GH: Thank you very much.
RS: The movie is worth watching to experience that sort of role model that we just don’t have. We have so many opportunists, and so few people who say, you know, there’s something more than my career and my survival. OK. Gavin Hood, director and writer of “Official Secrets,” or one of the writers of ”Official Secrets.” This has been another edition of Scheer Intelligence. KCRW.com is where you can find them. And we’re broadcasting here from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Sebastian Grubaugh has been our engineer, and our producer is Joshua Scheer. See you next week for another edition of Scheer Intelligence.