AUSTIN, Texas -- Friends of liberty, raise hell! To the barricades, or at least to the post office and the emails. A British citizen named Katharine Gun faces two years in prison for revealing that the U.S. National Security Agency tried -- and succeeded -- in getting the Brits to help us with illegal spying operations at the United Nations. The targets were the delegations of the six countries on the U.N. Security Council that were undecided on how to vote on the critical Iraqi war resolution.

            Now, there are two schools of reaction to this tawdry, slimy little spy episode: It was illegal, immoral and wrong, and Katharine Gun should get a medal for exposing it. Or, some are shocked, shocked to hear of spying at the U.N., where it is apparently only slightly less common than dirt.

            Well, if it wasn't much of a secret to begin with, why is this woman going to prison for telling the truth? Give her a medal anyway.

            Not in Britain, where the Official Secrets Act is used to scare the bejeezus out of people -- fear of the act may have played a role in the suicide of Dr. David Kelly, the scientist who claimed the British government overstated Iraq's weapons capability. If Britain had a constitution guaranteeing freedom of the press, or even a halfway decent whistle-blower law, this truly Orwellian Secrets Act would be tossed out by the courts in no time flat.  

            Meanwhile, Gun may be sentenced to prison for doing precisely what we all hope every government employee will try to do: prevent the government from committing an illegal and immoral act. Some dare call it patriotism.

            Gun, 29, worked for Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) as a translator. I spoke to her father while in London recently -- Gun herself is not allowed to speak to anyone about this, and he could not say much. Gun was raised partly in the Far East and speaks fluent Chinese. During the lead-up to the Iraqi invasion, she came across an email from Frank Koza of NSA proposing an intelligence "surge" to gather "the whole gamut of information that could give U.S. policymakers an edge in obtaining results favorable to U.S. goals or to head off surprises." Under the Vienna conventions on diplomatic relations, espionage at the United Nations is strictly forbidden.  

            Nevertheless, the United States wanted information at the time of Secretary of State Colin Powell's appearance at the U.N. seeking a second U.N. resolution on Iraq. It will be interesting for future historians to find out how much of the Bush administration's failure to persuade the U.N. to its point of view was the result of using illegal and bullying tactics.

            The British paper The Observer reported last week that Britain did indeed help the United States to conduct secret and "potentially illegal" spying operations at the U.N. "It is also known that the operation caused significant disquiet in the intelligence community on both sides of the Atlantic."

            Ooops, even the spooks were nervous about it. The Observer also notes it was likely China was a target of the operations: "Security experts have said it is highly unlikely that someone as junior as Gun would have seen the memo had she not been expected to use her language expertise in the operation."

            You've never seen anything as pathetically deformed as the British press's efforts to report what its own government is up to when it looks as though the Official Secrets Act might come into play. The Hutton report was an investigation into Dr. Kelly's suicide that politely exempted Tony Blair's administration from all blame (this was achieved by failing to ask a number or pertinent questions). The day before Lord Hutton was to present his report, its contents were leaked to a pro-Blair newspaper, setting off a great chorus of cries for an inquiry to investigate the leak of the report of the inquiry to investigate the leak of the ... etc. The thing would have leaked as a matter of course in Washington. It's not as though any damage was done like, say, just for example, exposing a CIA agent who worked abroad without diplomatic cover.  

            As a rule, it is not a good idea to set things up so that people get punished for telling the truth -- or even re-elected for telling lies. I realize Americans are in no position to lecture other countries on freedom these days, given the Patriot Act and attendant damage to the Fourth Amendment, but given Gun's dicey situation, it's worth dropping a line to the British Embassy at 3100 Massachusetts Ave., Washington, D.C. 20008 or via a group in the United States supporting Gun, the Institute for Public Accuracy at     Gun probably is guilty under the misbegotten Official Secrets Act (the email she leaked was marked "Top Secret"), but one wonderful thing about the system of justice we inherited largely from the Brits is that a jury doesn't have to follow the law -- a jury can do what it thinks is right.  

            I can think of at least 536 really good reasons why I wish American government employees had blown their whistles before we went to war over weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist.

            To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.