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We must have the truth on Iraq war

Secrecy is poisoning the body politic

Sunday February 29, 2004
The Observer

Exactly a year ago, The Observer published a story that the United States, whose plans for war were in full swing, had requested British assistance to bug the United Nations as it deliberated about the crisis in Iraq. Our report was followed up across the world, in countries whose ambassadors had suffered the indignity of learning that their phones and emails had been bugged and their private conversations passed on to the US Administration.

In London, the report was officially ignored, meeting the routine government response that the authorities never comment on intelligence matters. Large sections of the British media also remained uninterested, driven partly by a widespread cynicism that such operations are to be expected, particularly given the tensions of that pre-war time. However, the dramatic collapse of the case brought under the Official Secrets Act against Katharine Gun, the GCHG translator, raises concerns that that cynicism cannot easily dispel.

It now seems incontrovertible that, in the period running up to the invasion of Iraq, the US spied on the UN Secretary-General, on key members of the Security Council, and on Hans Blix, head of the Iraq Weapons Inspection team, all in apparent contravention of the 1946 Vienna Convention that designates the UN a spying-free zone. Moreover, it seems likely that Britain colluded in this effort. The email we published a year ago detailing the US request for British assistance is powerful evidence; the insistence of former Minister Clare Short last week that she saw transcripts of Kofi Annan's conversations, though compromised by her enmity towards the Prime Minister, adds weight to the claims.

Last week, the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, withdrew the threat hanging over Ms Gun because, he said, there was no realistic chance of conviction. As she celebrates her freedom, she deserves our thanks and congratulations for her bravery and powerful commitment to the public interest.

Not only did she risk imprisonment to put critically important information into the public domain, she established the breakthrough precedent that defendants in Official Secrets Act trials can argue that the contested action was necessary in order for the defendant to avoid being forced into an illegal act. As a result the draconian machinery protecting official secrets is now looking increasingly unworkable; a review has been set up and reform seems inevitable. Ms Gun has been an important agent for change.

But though the case will now not go ahead, the questions raised by her actions and her strong belief that Britain was being dragged into an illegal war, still require answers.

A trial, though personally harrowing, would have flushed out more crucial detail about the circumstances surrounding the Iraq war. In order to press home the 'necessity' case, Ms Gun's lawyers would have forced the Government to release Lord Goldsmith's advice to the Prime Minister about the legality of the Iraq war in the absence of a second, supportive UN Resolution.

We now know, following a statement last week from Elizabeth Wilmshurst, the former deputy legal adviser at the Foreign Office who resigned on the eve of war, that the legal team believed that the war was illegal. Her statement adds weight to the growing evidence that the Government may have been advised that it was launching an illegal war and that the Attorney General was reluctant to continue with the prosecution of Ms Gun because a trial would have revealed evidence of this advice.

Many were implacably opposed to war with Iraq on any grounds. But many who supported war were reassured that it was within the envelope of legality, even in the absence of a second UN Resolution. It is vital to the health of political life in this country that the air is now cleared over this question. Lord Butler, charged with investigating intelligence in the wake of the Hutton inquiry, must follow the trail of intelligence documents into the Attorney General's office if his investigation is not to be seen as a whitewash.

Few would dispute the necessity of spies or of bugging in the war against terrorism. Even spying on allies may sometimes be deemed necessary though those who sanction it must be prepared to defend their disregard for treaty commitments. But the real poison in the body politic, undermining the authority of government, is a growing belief that the Government has not been telling the truth. As a nation we need to move on from the war that divided us. That can only happen following full disclosure of the circumstances surrounding Britain's decision to go to war.