Truth and Official Secrets

I recently had the chance to see the wonderful new British-American film, Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightly as British whistleblower, Katharine Gun. It’s a compelling tale of Gun’s courageous attempt to prevent the Iraq War by releasing a secret document revealing US efforts to manipulate UN Security Council member states into authorizing the use of force.

I won’t spoil the film by discussing the dramatic twist in the British government’s attempt to bring legal charges against Gun, but it is worth noting that the film brilliantly exposes the illegality of the Iraq War. Under international law, the use of force is only permissible under two conditions: when authorized by the UN Security Council, or if necessary, for self-defense. In this instance, neither condition applied. Security Council member states refused to support the US-UK resolution authorizing the use of force, despite American attempts to pressure them. The self-defense argument might have been legitimate if Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, as Bush, Cheney and Blair claimed, but of course no such weapons were found. Extensive scouring of the country by invasion forces and special investigative teams turned up nothing.

Gun was motivated to release the documents and risk prosecution because she wanted to save lives and prevent an unnecessary war. She was unsuccessful, as were tens of millions of us around the world who tried to prevent the invasion in 2002 and 2003. The Bush-Cheney-Blair cabal pressed ahead with the predetermined war regardless of the facts or the likely disastrous consequences.

The film reminds us of the staggering human cost of the war: hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed and the deaths of more than 4600 US and British troops. As I read those numbers it was hard to hold back tears, or to control my rage at such colossal criminality.

Leaving the theater, I reflected on the current impeachment investigation against Trump and realized that what Bush and Cheney did in Iraq was far worse than what Trump has done. Hopefully Trump will be held accountable, thanks in part to whistleblowers in the US government today. But what about Bush, Cheney and others who lied blatantly to start an illegal war that killed so many and has had so many violent and disruptive consequences for Iraq and the region?

The British government conducted an Iraq inquiry and in 2016 issued the Chilcot Report, which The Guardian called a “crushing verdict” against Blair for launching an unnecessary war without legal justification on the basis of flimsy intelligence.

No such accounting has taken place in the United States. The Senate issued two committee reports on intelligence failures, in 2005 and 2008, but these did not address the Bush administration’s intentional and systematic deceptions in leading the country to war. The Senate reports did not examine the deeper and more important issue of the illegality of the war.

I’m not holding my breath that there will be a truth commission on US government crimes in Iraq, certainly not in the Trumpian age of assault against facts and evidence. But hopefully in the future there will be more revealing films like Official Secrets, and if necessary more principled whistleblowers like Katharine Gun who come forward sooner and in greater numbers to prevent illegal and unnecessary wars.

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