“Official Secrets” is a political thriller and spy drama starring Keira Knightley as Katharine Gun, alongside Matt Smith, Matthew Goode and Ralph Fiennes. The most inspiring part of the film was that it was indeed based on a true story. The film was directed by Gavin Hood.
This film was my kind of movie. There was drama and suspense. You are on the edge of your seat throughout as each twist and turn in the movie unfolds. It wasn’t nominated for anything. It made less than $2 million at the box office here in the US. Nevertheless, if you can find a copy of it at Redbox or your local library (that’s where I picked it up), I would recommend it.
The story may be more widely known in the UK or Europe, but it seemed like it flew under the radar here in the US. Katharine Gun, a translator working for the British intelligence agency at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), receives an email originating from Frank Koza, chief of staff of the “regional targets” division of the American signals intelligence agency, at the National Security Agency (NSA), labeled “Top Secret.” The memo basically is charging its people to dig up dirt on delegates six nations: Angola, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, and Pakistan. They are considered “swing” votes at the United Nations (UN) Security Council deciding whether the UN will go to war against Iraq. The dirt they find would be used to blackmail the delegates to get the votes needed to proceed with war.
Vehemently opposed to the war, and outraged by such an email, she decides to give to a friend that she knows who has ties with journalists. The Observer in the UK published the email on the front page and it sets off a media frenzy leading to interrogations of everyone at GCHQ and ultimately, Gun’s confession to leaking the email to the press.
The more I learn about the recent actions of the US government within our spy agencies and the other Western countries we are allied with, the less trust I have of them. From illegal wiretapping, to snooping on our webcams, to tracking our internet browsing history and social media pages, time after time I feel like we are being constantly monitored and our privacy is being violated.
Movies like “Citizenfour” and Edward Snowden’s follow-up book, “Permanent Record,” only reinforce this total lack of trust I have in our government. Stories of people on the inside that come out with tell-all books about the gross violation of rights and abuse of power that is initiated at the top levels of the government that goes unchecked and ignored, are horrified. People would say things like, “it doesn’t matter if you have nothing to hide,” but that is like saying that you should share your house or car with anyone who wants to use it to show that you are a good person and you care about other people. This isn’t communist China where our internet is censored and information the government wants to hide is withheld from its citizens. This isn’t the Soviet Union where there is constant surveillance of every phone call we make and listening devices are implanted in our homes to monitor our actions. This isn’t Nazi Germany where children are taught that the state is supreme and if we find anyone around us performing “illegal” activities that we should inform on them to the SS. No, but it feels like the more we relinquish our rights to privacy for the sake of security, the more our society shifts to the big brother societies of the past, just in a more covert way.
As I have sought out books and stories like this one about government abuse of power, something that has stuck out to me in several of these stories is the fact that when someone enters into service as a spy or an intelligence officer, they swear an oath. It’s not an oath to the government. It’s not an oath to a President or Prime Minister. It’s not an oath to a political party. The oath they swear is to the citizens of their country. It is to their fellow countryman. I believe the distinction is important. Knightley sums it up succinctly in character as Katharine Gun:
“Governments change. I work for the British people. I gather intelligence so that the government can protect the British people. I do not gather intelligence so that the government can lie to the British people.”
The purpose of the government and its agencies is to serve the people. The laws are written to protect people and to protect their rights. Here in the US, the President isn’t elected to be a commanding despot with supreme power, he is there to serve the American people. The current state of affairs for the past twenty years (and likely beyond) is sad. Reflecting on the past four terms of the presidency, we had a dismal war in Iraq that found no trace of weapons of mass destruction and only served to destabilize an already dicey region of the world. It cost a minimum of 150,000+ lives of Iraqis and thousands of American and British soldiers’ lives, soldier casualties were over 37,000, many of them still dealing with the negative effects today almost twenty years later.
Sometimes it can all feel hopeless that nothing ever change. But we can’t think like that. We need to make decisions through voting, joining grassroots movements, and standing up against abuse of power and calling for accountability for our elected officials. We need to stand up, like Ms. Gun did, when we see things that we know are wrong and do something about them.