It is a different time, a different war and a different country. But America's most famous leaker, Daniel Ellsberg, senses a kindred spirit in a 29-year-old British intelligence officer now facing criminal charges for leaking a top-secret National Security Agency document a year ago in a failed attempt to derail the looming war on Iraq.
Last week, shortly after Katharine Gun pleaded not guilty to violating Britain's Official Secrets Act, Ellsberg and other anti-war Americans launched a public campaign defending her actions.
In interviews and an article for the British newspaper The Guardian, the 72-year-old activist spoke out in defense of Gun, a Chinese-language translator and analyst at Government Communications Headquarters until her arrest in March. GCHQ, in the small English city of Cheltenham, intercepts phone calls, faxes, e-mail and the like and collaborates with the NSA, the mammoth eavesdropping agency at Fort Meade.
"I really admire and appreciate what Katharine Gun's done," Ellsberg told The Sun from his Berkeley, Calif., home. "I was in the same position as she was, being on trial for doing the right thing."
In fact, Ellsberg, 72, said Gun's act in releasing the NSA memo to the London newspaper The Observer last February was "more timely and potentially more significant" than his own leak of the Pentagon Papers, a secret history of the war in Vietnam.
Ellsberg said his only regret from the Vietnam period, when he was a defense analyst for the government and the Rand Corp., was that he didn't start leaking as early as 1964 or 1965, when embarrassing revelations might still have halted the buildup to the Vietnam War. By 1971, when he gave the Pentagon Papers to U.S. newspapers, the war was already a bloody and divisive affair.
Gun's NSA memo, by contrast, came out about two weeks before U.S. and British forces began the air assault on Baghdad last March. By revealing that NSA was launching a "surge" of extra eavesdropping aimed at the U.N. delegations of six countries that the United States was trying to persuade to back the war, the memo's release might just have provoked sufficient fury to slow or halt the march to war, Ellsberg argues.
"It didn't prevent the war, obviously, but it could have and should have," Ellsberg said. He pointed out that none of the six targeted countries - Angola, Cameroon, Guinea, Chile, Bulgaria and Pakistan - agreed to support the U.S. war effort, and the Bush administration gave up on seeking a U.N. Security Council resolution backing the war.
"The U.S. feared a vote, thanks in part to Katharine Gun," Ellsberg said.
Gun, who could be sentenced to two years in prison if convicted, has given no interviews. But in statements released by Liberty, the British civil liberties group that is handling her legal defense, she admitted being the source of the leaked memo and explained her motivation.
"I will defend the charge against me on the basis that my actions were necessary to prevent an illegal war in which thousands of Iraqi civilians and British soldiers would be killed or maimed," said Gun, who had worked at GCHQ for two years.
"No one has suggested (nor could they) that I sought or received any payment. I have only ever followed my conscience. I have been heartened by the many messages of support and encouragement that I have received from Britain and around the world."
Ellsberg and other anti-war celebrities, including actors Sean Penn and Martin Sheen and singer Bonnie Raitt, embraced Gun's stance in a statement released last week:
"We honor Katharine Gun as a whistle-blower who bravely risked her career and her very liberty to inform the public about illegal spying in support of a war based on deception. In a democracy, she should not be made a scapegoat for exposing the transgressions of others."
None of the signers, however, was a current or former intelligence professional. The delicate art of eavesdropping depends in part on unsuspecting targets. Anyone who is fully aware that his secrets are being overheard can take steps to defeat the eavesdroppers: encrypting communications, relying on written messages carried by couriers, or simply avoiding sensitive topics on the phone. That's why leaking eavesdropping plans is considered not just a violation of the law but a cardinal sin against the profession, intelligence experts say.
That NSA's electronic vacuum cleaner was pointed at allies is not surprising in the least, said Matthew M. Aid, an intelligence historian in Washington. He said that U.S. eavesdroppers listened in on allied delegations to the San Francisco conference that established the United Nations in 1945.
And U.N. diplomats know that their communications are not always private. "I think every country and every terrorist cell out there with half a brain realizes the United States is trying to listen to their calls," said Loch K. Johnson, a University of Georgia political scientist and author of several books on spying. "There's a subterranean war out there called intelligence gathering, and every country engages in it."
But Aid and Johnson agreed that NSA officials, who declined to comment on the affair last week, were surely infuriated by the Gun leak. Even if foreign diplomats have a general awareness that their communications might not be private, a memo like this one makes them more vigilant, they said.
Moreover, Aid said, "The vast majority of the people in this country - let alone in other countries - do not realize this kind of eavesdropping goes on. So this leak certainly caused grave embarrassment for the United States."
Johnson said such leaks can cost far more than embarrassment. By shutting off sources of critical information and disrupting intelligence sharing such as that between the United States and the United Kingdom, leaks could conceivably prevent American spy agencies from heading off a devastating terrorist attack.
Rather than leaking the memo, Gun "could have gone to a parliamentary committee" with her concerns, said Johnson, who spent last spring at Oxford University and knows some GCHQ employees. "It undermines the whole intelligence-collection system if people start willy-nilly giving out classified documents."
But Ellsberg, who once faced 12 felony charges and a possible 115 years in prison for leaking the Pentagon Papers, is decidedly unrepentant. He avoided prison only because charges were dropped after revelations that the Nixon administration violated the law in its zeal to punish him - notably by breaking into the office of Ellsberg's psychoanalyst.
He pointed out that today even a key architect of the war in Vietnam, Robert McNamara, says it was a tragic mistake. How many lives might have been saved, he asked, had a flood of leaks led to a U.S. pullout before the escalation of the late 1960s?
So last week, in his newspaper article and interviews, Ellsberg called for more leaks. It's too late to stop the Iraq war, he acknowledged, but who knows what other developments a timely leak might head off? "There's a lot of whistle-blowing that needs to be done in this country," he said.
The leaked memo
To: [Recipients withheld] From: FRANK KOZA, Def (sic) Chief of Staff (Regional Targets) CIV/NSA
Sent on Jan 31 2003 0:16
Subject: Reflections of Iraq Debate/Votes at UN - RT Actions + Potential for Related Contributions
Importance: HIGH Top Secret//COMINT//X1 All, As you've likely heard by now, the Agency is mounting a surge particularly directed at the UN Security Council (UNSC) members (minus US and GBR [Great Britain] of course) for insights as to how ... membership is reacting to the on-going debate RE: Iraq, plans to vote on any related resolutions, what related policies/ negotiating positions they may be considering, alliances/ dependencies, etc. - the whole gamut of information that could give US policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to US goals or to head off surprises. ... That means a ... surge effort to revive/ create efforts against UNSC members Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria and Guinea, as well as extra focus on Pakistan UN matters. ...
We have a lot of special UN-related diplomatic coverage (various UN delegations) from countries not sitting on the UNSC right now that could contribute related perspectives/ insights/ whatever. We recognize that we can't afford to ignore this possible source.
We'd appreciate your support in getting the word to your analysts who might have similar, more in-direct access to valuable information from accesses in your product lines. ...
Thanks for your help.