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UK Translator divulges confidential information
Thread poster: Anette Herbert

Anette Herbert  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:29
English to Swedish
+ ...
Feb 24, 2004

Dear all,
I thought this may be of interest to fellow translators and is NOT a political statement at all.
It concerns the GCHQ translator Katherine Gunn who made the decision to divulge information for which she now faces a jail sentence.

It certainly concerns the confidentiality to which we are so bound. It raises the question whether there may be a situation where divulging information is the right thing to do or not?

I only have one link on the subject which is to those who think Katherine should not be punished for what she did, but it will give some of the background to the story.

Even though I don't think that confidentiality should be broken I think she was very brave. I don't know if I would have done the same, it's hard to tell if you haven't been in the situation.

Would you?

Anette Usterud

http://www.owos.info/katharine.php


[Edited at 2004-02-24 12:08]


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James Calder  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 13:29
Spanish to English
+ ...
Little sympathy I'm afraid Feb 24, 2004

An interesting case, Annette, that I hadn't heard about but I have little sympathy for her position I'm afraid. In signing the Official Secrets Act, civil servants (I was one for five years) are obliged to maintain confidentiality even if there are certain policies you disagree with.

She must, however, have been aware of the implications of disclosing the information and in doing so should have been prepared to accept a jail sentence. To go to jail in defence of your beliefs is brave - to disclose information and then try to avoid punishment is wanting to have your cake and eat it.

Confidentiality is also an extremely important part of our work as translators. If we decide to break that confidentiality for whatever reason we must be fully aware of the implications and prepared to accept the consequences. Otherwise, keep schtum as they say.


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Monique Laville  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 13:29
Italian to French
+ ...
Confidential information Feb 24, 2004

Thanks Annette for bringing this case to our attention.

I totally agree with James’s words.

A translator has to deal with many types of documents, among which some are surely in contrast with his own beliefs. The only way he can remain in peace with his conscience is to refuse to translate them, but once the work has been accepted, I think that confidentiality should be maintained anyway, especially when a document obliging to maintain it has been signed.


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Lesley Clarke  Identity Verified
Mexico
Local time: 06:29
Spanish to English
Illegal acts Feb 24, 2004

Yes, confidentiality is important, as is obeying orders in the army. But "just obeying orders" was not accepted as a justification for soldiers in the Nurenburg trials, and confidentiality cannot be applied to illegal acts, we are not priests.

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Deborah Shannon  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 13:29
Member (2002)
German to English
You are right Lesley Feb 24, 2004

Lesley Clarke wrote:
"just obeying orders" was not accepted as a justification for soldiers in the Nurenburg trials, and confidentiality cannot be applied to illegal acts


I quite agree. She had good reason to believe people were committing crimes and putting lives at risk. She was right to blow the whistle, in my opinion.

Confidentiality only applies within the law. If we discover serious fraud, corruption or criminality and are in a position to prevent it, we can either speak out - or become an accessory to the crime.

Some background to the case:

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/leaders/story/0,6903,1125699,00.html

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/politics/story/0,6903,1153664,00.html

I don't totally disagree with James when he says that if you break the law (even on conscientious grounds), you cannot expect to evade punishment. However, I think this situation is slightly different. If your only means of preventing a serious crime is to commit a lesser crime, you have no choice but to break the law. And that should be a good enough defence.

Considering that certain of the agencies involved in this wrongdoing are more or less "beyond the reach of the law", all in all I think it was extremely courageous of her to follow her conscience. I believe her position will be vindicated in the end, one way or another.


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Fuad Yahya  Identity Verified
Arabic
+ ...
Analogous to Civil Disobedience Feb 24, 2004

Peretz Kidron's essay "Truth whereby Nations Live" provides an intersting view on confidentiality obligations and the exceptional situations where one might consider honoring higher values, from the standpoint of a "ghost writer," which is not very different from that of a translator.

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mckinnc  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:29
French to English
+ ...
The case is to be dropped Feb 24, 2004

The latest news on this suggested that the case will be dropped. Ms Gun's counsel intended to ask that the Attorney General be made to disclose his (secret) advice to Prime Minister Blair regarding the legality of going to war with Iraq. This appears to have "spooked" the UK Government so much that they are no loger willing to pursue the case.

Let us not forget that what she did was leak the information that the US inteligence agencies were asking their British counterparts to illegaly intercept communications from the UN delegations in a position to defeat any resolution put forward to the Security Council by the US/UK. She claims that she and her colleagues were being railroaded into helping the US and UK Governments declare war illegitimately and that the result would be the death of many Iraqi citizens, British soldiers etc.

Signing the Official Secrets Act does not mean that you forfeit the moral right to draw public attention to what you consider to be attempts to commit illegal acts by your government or those of other countries.

This case has attracted a great deal of interest both in the UK and the US and Ms Gun's has been vocally supported by some very high-profile individuals. It should not be forgotten that she has lost her job as a result of her stance, may yet lose her liberty and has not chosen to make money out of the whole affair by going into print.


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James Calder  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 13:29
Spanish to English
+ ...
Whistleblowing and the consequences Feb 24, 2004

[quote]Deborah Shannon wrote:

She had good reason to believe people were committing crimes and putting lives at risk. She was right to blow the whistle, in my opinion.

I'm not saying she was wrong, Deborah, nor do I believe that governments of any political persuasion should always be trusted. Some of the post-11/9 policies being practiced by governments on either side of the Atlantic are less than wholesome, but we won\'t go into that. My point was that if you\'re going to blow the whistle (not an easy decision to make I would imagine) then you must accept the consequences, even it means jail. At least the lady in question has stayed in this country to fight her case and not slinked off to the continent like others when faced with a similar situation.
I believe, though, that she ought to go to jail for what she did because any other outcome could have potentially damaging consequences for national security.


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Eno Damo  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:29
English to Albanian
+ ...
It's all about the law Feb 24, 2004

Hi,

What we have here is the case of a person (translator) who decides to break the law, because it doesn't feel it is right according to his own beliefs. We all feel the same about this law or that law, whether it is tax law, human rights or criminal law. The bottom line is that all people dislike all laws, but all people have to live by all laws. If you believe that the job you are doing doesn't match what you believe or think is right, than you have a choice (and that the good thing about our societies): change your job or change your beliefs.

Cheers,

Eno


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Harry Bornemann  Identity Verified
Mexico
English to German
+ ...
Wrong address Feb 24, 2004

Maybe she should have leaked the information to a public prosecutor, but giving them to a newspaper is certainly against some laws.

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Giovanni Guarnieri MITI, MIL  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 12:29
English to Italian
agree with Colin... Feb 24, 2004

entirely...

Giovanni


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Anne Lee  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 12:29
Member (2003)
Dutch to English
+ ...
A note of cynicism Feb 24, 2004

Harry, I really don't think that a complaint to a public prosecutor would have done much good. I remember translating a piece of research about another EU country, stating that complaints of that nature tend to be not acted on, or apparently investigated without anyone being punished or the results being published at the end. I emphasise that in my view, translator confidentiality is paramount and I even change names or sentences in my Kudoz questions to avoid information about my customers to be identified. But we should not kid ourselves about what goes on behind the scenes. These are difficult ethical questions indeed!

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Harry Bornemann  Identity Verified
Mexico
English to German
+ ...
Point of view Feb 24, 2004

Anne Lee wrote:
Harry, I really don't think that a complaint to a public prosecutor would have done much good...
Anne, I don't see this so pessimistically.

Colin wrote:
Signing the Official Secrets Act does not mean that you forfeit the moral right to draw public attention to what you consider to be attempts to commit illegal acts by your government or those of other countries.
Colins statement is also valid for public prosecutors, and they usually have an even more concise understanding of criminal acts than for example some of the authors of the illegaly intercepted communications from the UN delegations, who said they would rather feel insulted if they had not been tapped.

[Edited at 2004-02-24 19:41]


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Anne Lee  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 12:29
Member (2003)
Dutch to English
+ ...
dark note Feb 24, 2004

Harry, I have been involved in politics for 10 years before becoming a translator and I envy you your belief in the legal system . Maybe because one complaint I personally knew of, submitted via 'the proper route' was investigated and many years later quietly forgotten. But I'm a law-abiding citizen and understand the importance of confidentiality.

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Harry Bornemann  Identity Verified
Mexico
English to German
+ ...
Variegated population Feb 24, 2004

Anne Lee wrote:
Harry, I have been involved in politics for 10 years before becoming a translator and I envy you your belief in the legal system...
I knew some guys in Germany and France before and after they became judges, and they are cool.
I also know several lawyers who are lying to a shameful extend. (I don't know any legal prosecutors, yet.)
And I have been involved in politics for 6 months, so I understand what you mean...


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