Film review: Official Secrets (2019)

I just saw the above film and it is excellent. It is based on real life events and tells the story of Katharine Gun, a fairly low-level intelligence analyst working for the GCHQ (the British equivalent of the NSA with all its evils) who, during the push by the Bush-Cheney regime to get support for its plans to attack Iraq in 2003, comes across a memo sent by a top official in the NSA to the GCHQ asking for help in getting dirt on the non-permanent members of the UN Security Council in order to ‘pressure’ them (i.e., blackmail) to vote in favor of the second UN resolution to go to war with Iraq since it was felt that the 2002 resolution was a weak legal footing on which to wage war.

She was so appalled by the lies of then British prime minister and war criminal Tony Blair, who was saying that the intelligence services had evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and of his fellow war criminal George W. Bush pushing the same lies, that she secretly passed the memo on to a friend who passed it to a reporter in the Observer newspaper. The reporter had to fight with the paper’s editor to get it published because the latter was a gung-ho supporter of Blair and the war and the paper had endorsed it.

This was an act of extraordinary courage by Gun who was risking going to prison for a long time for violating the very strict Official Secrets Act in the UK. The film deals with what happened afterwards and it is a gripping story of the interplay between Gun, the media, the intelligence services, and human rights lawyers. Its main stars are Keira Knightly and Ralph Fiennes but it really an ensemble film with an excellent cast.

Jon Schwarz at The Intercept gives the film a rave review calling it “The best movie ever made about the truth behind the Iraq war”. He says that the film exposes the fecklessness of the US media that failed to aggressively pursue this story at a time when it could have actually swayed public opinion against it. Instead they were cheerleaders for the war, swallowing the entirely false rationale that there was proof that Iraq had WMDs.

The little attention the story got was largely thanks to the journalist and activist Norman Solomon, and the organization he founded, the Institute for Public Accuracy, or IPA. Solomon had traveled to Baghdad just months before and co-written the book “Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t Tell You,” which came out in late January 2003.

Today, Solomon remembers that “I felt instant kinship — and, actually, what I’d describe as love — for whoever had taken the enormous risk of revealing the NSA memo. Of course, at the time I was clueless about who’d done it.” He soon penned a syndicated column titled “American Media Dodging U.N. Surveillance Story.”

Schwarz adds a coda where he discusses something that is not in the film and that is that Gun was convinced that the war was immoral and illegal by two books that she read that were outside the mainstream.

“I was already very suspicious about the arguments for war,” she says via email. So she went to a bookstore and headed to the politics section and looked for something about Iraq. She bought two books and read them cover to cover that weekend. Together they “basically convinced me that there was no real evidence for this war.”

One of these books was “War Plan Iraq: Ten Reasons Against War on Iraq” by Milan Rai. The second was “Target Iraq,” the book co-authored by Solomon.

“Target Iraq” was published by Context Books, a tiny company that went bankrupt soon afterwards. It arrived in stores just weeks before Gun found it. Within days after she read it, the January 31 NSA email appeared in her inbox, and she quickly decided what she had to do.

“I was stunned to hear Katharine say that the ‘Target Iraq’ book had influenced her decision to reveal the NSA memo,” Solomon now says. “I didn’t know how to quite fathom [it].”

What does all this mean?

For journalists who care about journalism, it means that, while you may often feel that you’re shouting pointlessly into the wind, you can never predict who your work will reach and how it will affect them. The people inside giant, powerful institutions are not all supervillains in impermeable bubbles. Most are regular human beings who live in the same world as everyone else and, like everyone else, are struggling to do the right thing as they see it. Take seriously the chance that you are communicating with someone who might take action you’d never expect.

Likewise, Gun, Solomon and the millions of people who fought the onrushing Iraq War failed, in some sense. But anyone who was paying attention then knew that Iraq was intended as just the first step in a U.S. conquest of the entire Middle East. They didn’t prevent the Iraq War. But they, at least so far, helped prevent the Iran War.

So check out “Official Secrets” as soon as it appears in a theater near you. You will rarely see a better portrait of what it means for someone to try to make a true moral choice, even when unsure, even while terrified, even when she has no idea what will happen next.

Here’s the trailer.


  1. says

    For journalists who care about journalism

    The flip side is that you have (self-congratulatory) stories from journalists at the New York Times, etc, who admit that they knew about the torture program for years before it became public, but didn’t publish anything about it because the white house asked them nicely. The antagonistic press has nearly completely folded up and quit, all we’ve got it whistle-blowers and random truth-tellers.

  2. says


    getting dirt on the non-permanent members of the US Security Council

    Shurely you meant UN Security Council? That’s quite a different animal.

  3. lanir says

    I think you mean the UN Security Council in the first paragraph.

    I’ll have to watch this sometime. I will probably never get a security clearance because I’m quite well aware the only legitimacy governments have is through the laws and processes they follow. But humans have a tendency to put autocrats and other useless hangers-on in positions of great power within large organizations like governments. So when those people decide to abuse the power that surrounds them and act like thugs and warlords, and they will, they need to be pulled up short.

    High office is a responsibility not a divine mandate.

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