The British government yesterday dropped all charges against a British intelligence officer who leaked a National Security Agency memo ordering stepped-up eavesdropping at the United Nations in the weeks before the United States invaded Iraq last year.
Katharine Gun, a 29-year-old Chinese linguist at the British eavesdropping agency Government Communications Headquarters, had publicly admitted that she was the source of the classified document, which gave a rare inside look at the NSA's targeting of friendly countries. But prosecutors told a judge in London's Old Bailey criminal court that there was not "sufficient evidence" for a conviction under Britain's Official Secrets Act.
"I am absolutely overwhelmed and obviously delighted," Gun, who was fired from her job in June, told reporters after the hearing. "I have no regrets, and I would do it again."
She defended the leak as an act of civil disobedience. "I'm not prone to leak secrets right, left and center, but I felt this was a really clear and important item that needed to get out to the public," she told the Associated Press. "I think the public deserve to know what was going on at the time."
British officials apparently decided a public trial for Gun risked exposing intelligence-gathering methods and internal government debates while turning her into a political martyr. Opponents of the Iraq war in Britain and the United States - including Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971 - had rallied around her and portrayed her leak as a courageous act of conscience.
Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the liberal Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and author of Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's UN, said she was pleased that Gun no longer faces a possible two-year prison term.
"This was a political decision," Bennis said. "Their judgment was that there was a greater political price to pay by going ahead with the case and putting on trial the legality of Britain's involvement in the war."
She said the leak "sends a message to spy chiefs" that they may risk exposure if they engage in spying for the purpose of manipulating other countries rather than protecting national security.
But Peter Brookes, a former CIA officer now at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Gun was wrong to violate her secrecy oath.
"This was completely irresponsible," Brookes said. "She was given a special position of trust, and she violated it. The more honorable thing, if she wanted to protest the war, would have been to resign her position."
The memo leaked by Gun to the British newspaper The Observer was written by Frank Koza, a midlevel official of NSA, the mammoth intelligence agency based at Fort Meade. Dated Jan. 31 of last year, it outlined plans for "a surge" of eavesdropping against the U.N. delegations of Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Bulgaria, Guinea and Pakistan.
At the time, the Bush administration was seeking a U.N. Security Council vote supporting the use of force against Iraq. Unable to muster the necessary votes, the United States subsequently went to war without explicit U.N. authorization.
Officials of NSA and Government Communications Headquarters, which cooperate closely, have declined to comment on the leaked memo. Media reports of communications intercepted by the intelligence agencies are not uncommon, but the publication of the text of a memo detailing NSA's eavesdropping plans was unprecedented, intelligence historians say.
The Observer's initial report referred to the U.N. eavesdropping plan as "U.S. dirty tricks." But intelligence experts say NSA, like intelligence agencies around the world, routinely monitors phone calls, faxes and e-mails of foreign diplomats.
"Both U.N. staff and diplomats assume the U.S. - and perhaps other countries - are listening in," said Bennis, the U.N. expert. "There's a joke that the U.N. delegates' lounge is the most bugged room in the country. What is new is for it to be made public."
Brookes, the former CIA officer, said the leak suggests that Government Communications Headquarters needs to tighten security by making sure sensitive documents are shared only on a "need-to-know" basis, as is standard in the intelligence agencies.
"If she was working on Chinese targets, why should she have this memo in the first place?" he said. "She would have no need to know."