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Ex-GCHQ chief compares Iraq whistleblower to Soviet spy

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The former director of GCHQ Sir David Pepper has for the first time spoken of his anger at a whistleblower in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, comparing her case to that of the traitor and paedophile Geoffrey Prime, who was jailed in the 1980s for passing secrets to the KGB.

Pepper said the actions of Katharine Gun - a GCHQ translator who in 2003 passed documents to The Observer showing that the UK and US planned to spy on fellow members of the UN Security Council - had been "profoundly shocking" to him.

The eavesdropping aimed to gather intelligence on how other Security Council nations might vote on a resolution mandating the invasion of Iraq.

Once exposed, the joint GCHQ-NSA operation was widely condemned as a breach of international law. Gun's subsequent prosecution under the Official Secrets Act was dramatically dropped without explanation on the first day of her trial.

She later said she had not raised her concerns internally because she "honestly didn't think that would have had any practical effect".

Asked about GCHQ security breaches yesterday at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Pepper directly said his reaction to Gun's whistleblowing was similar to his reaction to Geoffrey Prime's treachery, Thisisgloucestershire reports.

Prime worked for GCHQ during the 1970s. He was unmasked as a Soviet spy by an investigation into his paedophile activities and received a 38-year sentence for espionage and sex offences. This year it was revealed that Prime, released in 2001, had revealed to the KGB that GCHQ and the NSA had cracked their ciphers in 1976.

His spying reportedly led the Soviets to overhaul their cryptography methods, blinding Western intelligence right up until the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"To discover again that there was someone among us that could do that was an absolute shock," Pepper said of Prime yesterday.

"Did Prime damage us? He was in a position to do very serious damage."

Gun has maintained she has no regrets and was hailed by anti-war campaigners for her moral courage. Her motivation and the failure of her revelations to stop the invasion apparently made no difference to Pepper's reaction however.

"As for Katherine Gun – it was similarly horrible for similar reasons," he said yesterday.

"Everyone at GCHQ is focused on doing the job and the thought that someone out of our family – and I don't think the word family is too strong, when you have 5,500 people there it becomes like a family – would break that trust was truly shocking.

"One of the most distressing things was that we put in place quite substantial mechanisms for people that were having issues of conscience to air them, either through their line manager or a staff counsellor – not a civil servant. And she didn't make use of any of those mechanisms."

Pepper retired as GCHQ director in October 2008. Earlier this month he took up a lobbying job at the defence giant Thales UK, which is bidding for a major cryptography contract from the MoD. ®

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