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Monday, Mar 01, 2004

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Ethics of intelligence

MS Katherine Gun was one of the 4,000-plus employees of the General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) near London, working as a translator. The GCHQ is a sanitised name for the greatest operational outfit for mail-interception and phone-tapping run by the British intelligence. A few months before the US launched its unprovoked attack on Iraq, Ms Gun came across a message marked Top Secret from a functionary in the US National Security Agency to the GCHQ asking the latter's help to eavesdrop on the embassies and diplomatic personnel of six member-countries of the UN Security Council holding out against a resolution authorising the US and the UK to invade Iraq.

Ms Gun was "horrified" at this shameless violation of the sanctity of the "UN's democratic process". She leaked out the contents of the message to The Guardian which duly published it. Ms Gun was dismissed from service and arrested for commission of offences under the Official Secrets Act. On the day (February 25) her trial was to start, the prosecutors told the court that the Crown had decided to drop the case. The public and the media are still to recover from this sensational development.

Ms Gun has said she had no regrets and she would do it again. Apparently, the Government panicked on knowing that her defence team was going to raise the question of the legality of the war in which event the prosecution would be called upon to produce official documents containing opinions contrary to the sanctimonious stand hitherto taken by both the UK and the US. Their aggression could then have been construed as a crime under the international law. Leaving aside the court drama, the salient issue of great concern to all national governments is whether an employee of an intelligence agency, sworn to secrecy, has the right to reveal to the public, on any ground whatsoever, sensitive information passing through him/her as part of his/her duty. Intelligence operations by their very nature run counter to ethical conduct in the way the term is understood in ordinary human affairs, and this deviation is taken to be permissible on over-riding considerations of national interest and security.

The very fact that funds are provided for them from the public exchequer is recognition of their being considered an essential part of any government. To claim the right to act the way Ms Katherine Gun did will be to destroy the very foundations of any orderly government.


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