Skip to Content

Books

All eyes and ears

Both of these books aim, in their different ways, to cater for Britain’s long-standing obsession with espionage and other forms of political and military intelligence.

14 August 2010

12:00 AM

14 August 2010

12:00 AM

GCHQ: The Uncensored Story of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency Richard J. Aldrich

Harper Press, pp.666, 30

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The History of the Wartime Codebreaking Centre by the Men and Women Who Were There Sinclair McKay

Aurum, pp.336, 20

Both of these books aim, in their different ways, to cater for Britain’s long-standing obsession with espionage and other forms of political and military intelligence.

Both of these books aim, in their different ways, to cater for Britain’s long-standing obsession with espion- age and other forms of political and military intelligence. But they have virtually nothing else in common.

Sinclair McKay’s The Secret Life of Bletchley Park is about daily life at the famous wartime headquarters of the Government Code and Cipher School. There is very little new material to be mined about the work done at Bletchley Park. Its contribution to the course of the second world war has already been well covered in a number of memoirs, not to speak of Harry Hinsley’s outstanding volumes in the official war history series. McKay hardly sets out to say anything original. Instead his pages are filled with chatter, derived mainly from interviews with survivors, about the food, the billets, the sex, the amateur dramatics and all other things which Bletchley’s inhabitants shared with much of wartime England.

Richard Aldrich’s GCHQ is an altogether more distinguished work. It covers the story of Bletchley Park’s enigmatically named successor, the Government Communications Headquarters. It says much for the instinctive patriotism of the post-war generation that although GCHQ was a visible presence in Cheltenham from 1952, and by far the largest employer in the town, its real purpose was not widely known until Duncan Campbell wrote about it in Time Out magazine in 1976, just two years after the first public revelations about the wartime operations of Bletchley Park. Since then the main outlines of the story have become widely known, while a torrent of information and misinformation has filled in some of the details.

GCHQ is one of Britain’s three main intelligence agencies. After the war, it took over from the Government Code and Cipher School the function of receiving and decoding intercepted wireless traffic from listening stations scattered throughout the United Kingdom and from several dozen overseas, spread out between Hong Kong and Ascension Island. The results are fed back to the Joint Intelligence Committee, now part of the Cabinet Office, and thence to ministers. Signals intelligence may lack the romanticism of old-fashioned spying. But it is now reckoned to account for some four-fifths of Britain’s intelligence and a corresponding proportion of the budget.


The organisation’s history is intimately bound up with the worldwide Anglo-American intelligence alliance, which dates back to the first intelligence co- operation agreement in 1943 and also includes Canada, Australia and (intermittently) New Zealand. The alliance survived the war and the growing strategic dominance of the United States because it suited the interests of all the partners, and indeed still does. As Britain’s worldwide reach contracted in the three decades after 1945, its own need for signals intelligence on this scale diminished. The main reason why it continued to be collected was to serve as a bargaining counter for obtaining American intelligence relating to Britain’s more local concerns: the European front against Russia during the Cold War, a handful of hotspots such as the Falkland Islands in 1982, and more recently terrorist threats to the United Kingdom.

Over the years, GCHQ’s resources and technical capacities have progressively fallen behind those of its American counterpart, the National Security Agency. Its main advantage, and the key to its ability to hold its own against its partners, has been its access to a handful of surviving imperial outposts. The GCHQ listening post in Hong Kong was retained and upgraded right up to the 1990s, mainly in order to collect intelligence about China for American use. The preservation of a worldwide network of listening stations generating intelligence primarily for American consumption has been a major factor in Britain’s retention of the colony of Ascension Island, two sovereign military bases in Cyprus, and the rather artificial British Indian Ocean Territories, an uninhabited archipelago occupied almost exclusively by American servicemen based at Diego Garcia. Even the growing use of satellite interception has not yet displaced these huge terrestrial stations, which between them cover much of Africa and the Middle East.

In the past three decades, the nature of GCHQ’s work has been transformed. Old-fashioned code-breaking has become less important as the more advanced target states have made their codes virtually impenetrable, and as the emphasis has shifted to analysis of traffic volumes and the interception and identification of communications en clair between terrorists and other criminals. Here, the major challenge is not to understand what is being said, but to devise ways of picking out from the prodigious haystack of words, a few needles of valuable intelligence. These last developments have in turn eroded the distinction between foreign and domestic intelligence-gathering which was once fundamental to the British intelligence world, and have raised major concerns about civil liberties. At the same time, the existence of a significant threat from international terrorism to the domestic security of the United Kingdom has led to a spectacular increase in the resources and staff of all the intelligence agencies, including GCHQ, and a much greater disposition among the public to accept the intrusive implications of electronic eavesdropping on such a scale.

All this has happened under the constant glare of press publicity of a kind which an earlier generation of intelligence directors would have abhorred. Yet not all the side-effects have been harmful. Now that everyone knows what GCHQ and NSA do, it has been possible to supply the product directly to military and diplomatic consumers, without the same inhibitions about the disclosure of intelligence methods that once made signals intelligence virtually unusable for tactical purposes. Even the old taboo against the use of intercepts as evidence in the criminal courts has begun to fade.

The revelations of leaks, moles and defected Soviet spies have made much of this story familiar. But unlike most writers on the subject, Richard Aldrich has not contented himself with sources such as these. He has made carefully framed freedom of information requests in both Britain and the United States. He has waded through the substantial classes of intelligence documentation in the Public Record Office which have been declassified since 1993. Although this material is supposed to exclude anything of current operational value, he has been skilful in reconstructing at least some of what has been withheld from fag-ends of what has been disclosed (such as the notes made by the ‘weeders’ charged with keeping out sensitive material).

Some of Aldrich’s material has been recycled from his own earlier volume, The Hidden Hand, on Anglo-American intelligence co-operation in the Cold War. But much of it is new. Only in the last four chapters, covering the period since 1989, do we find the relatively reliable record evidence petering out and being replaced, at least partially, by the more usual mish-mash of press reports, indiscretions and gossip.

This is a sober and valuable work of scholarship, which is as reliable as anything ever is in the twilight world of intelligence-gathering. Yet there is nothing dry about it. Aldrich knows how to write for a wider audience, while avoiding the speculations, inventions, sensationalism and sheer silliness of so much modern work on the subject.

We have come a long way since the Younger Pitt declined to read a treasonable letter from the leader of the opposition which his intelligence services had intercepted, on the ground that gentlemen did not read each other’s mail. No doubt gentlemen do not listen in to each other’s phone calls or morse trans- missions either. Y
et Richard Aldrich says just enough about the wider moral implications of GCHQ’s work to raise the issue, without grandstanding or pontificating. The highest praise one can bestow on a work like this is to say that it equips us to make our own judgment.


Show comments
Close