Official Secrets


Katherine Gun (played by Keira Knightley), employed at Government Communications Headquarters, watches Prime Minister Tony Blair make claims about Iraq on television in 2003 that have no factual basis. Blair is trying to build public support for the American push to go to war. The main claim is that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction that can be used against the United States and its allies. Foreign Secretary Colin Powell makes the same claim before the UN Security Council (UNSC). But no such evidence has been uncovered, Katherine knows. Then Katherine discovers a document in which the United States National Security Agency asks her agency to surveil UNSC members other than the Big Five, seeking to find compromising information about their personal lives, so that they can be blackmailed to support the war. (In a fascinating episode, a former security official decodes the peculiar words of the document.) Anticipating that the war will cost millions of innocent lives, she shares the key classified document with a journalist, who in turn informs a reporter of a mainstream newspaper. But the editor initially favors the war, so much of the film demonstrates how anti-war reporters are able to get the document published under a headline citing “dirty tricks” to get UNSC support. Although UNSC votes against the war, the war begins with “shock and awe” over Baghdad.

But British intelligence knows that someone leaked the document, so interrogation begins. Katherine decides to confess rather than allowing a cloud of suspicion over all her co-workers. She gives a reason—prevention of a needless war–, and is arrested for treason. With help from a human rights legal firm headed by Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), she awaits trial for a year. Meanwhile, Yazar (Adam Bakri), whom she marries, is terrified about what she has done. A Muslim (a Kurd from Turkey), he is almost deported, since the government seems intent on punishing her.

Much of the film, then, is devoted to legal argumentation about whether her leak was justified because the government was itself breaking international law by going to war without UNSC approval. In 2004, she goes to court to plead not guilty of the crime of breaching national security by leaking one document. But the government unexpectedly decides not to prosecute the case, even refusing to tell the judge why, and she goes free.

Yet filmviewers know why, as the defense attorney is in a position to subpoena documents that will expose abuse of power of high officials in the Blair administration. Katherine Gun herself appears at the end of the film along with titles indicating that full details were released in 2010. The extraordinary true story of Official Secrets, directed by Gavin Hood, has been nominated for best film on democracy, peace, and best film exposé of 2019. But the exposé may have another agenda—pointing out there was no American whistleblower counterpart.  MH