Thank God for Traitors

Bernard Porter

  • GCHQ: The Uncensored Story of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency by Richard Aldrich
    Harper, 666 pp, £30.00, June 2010, ISBN 978 0 00 727847 3

Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, gathers secret intelligence electronically rather than through spies: ‘sigint’ as opposed to ‘humint’. (There is also ‘comint’, ‘elint’, ‘comsec’, ‘sinews’ and ‘sigmod’.) It was the last of Britain’s three (that we know of) national secret services to be founded, and has the lowest public profile. (How many spy novels can you think of that feature ‘sigint’, aside from Robert Harris’s Enigma?) Yet today it is probably the most important, and certainly the most expensive. It is housed in Cheltenham in ‘the largest building ever initiated by the British government’. The building is shaped like a doughnut, which is the nickname given to it by its occupants; but it’s also reminiscent of Jeremy Bentham’s all-seeing ‘panopticon’. That seems apt: it allows the government to read and hear almost every message that passes between us. In his new history of GCHQ Richard Aldrich claims that this surveillance capability constitutes potentially ‘the most insidious threat to personal liberty’ we face today.

Bentham’s panopticon was a fiction. The Victorians who came after him would never have permitted anything like the degree of surveillance it implied, resisting and then mistrusting even plainclothes policemen for much of the period (outside Ireland and the empire: big exceptions, granted), and managing to do without anything resembling a modern secret service until around 1910. For most Victorians this was a matter of considerable pride, an essential feature of what would today be called their national identity, marking them off from the more authoritarian Continentals – for all time, or at least until the Continent became as liberal as they were. Which is why they would be disappointed, to put it mildly, to learn that a century later Britain was ‘one of the most watched societies in the world’; and, worse, was (under Labour) aggressively pressing continental Europe to ‘take on some of the odious burden of legislating for electronic surveillance of its own population’, against that population’s now more liberal instincts. It’s a spectacular reversal of roles.

Why this happened has never been satisfactorily explained by intelligence historians, most of whom seem to think it was quite natural. It is easy to think of general reasons: new threats, loss of national self-confidence, the decline of (political) liberalism and so on. Another was undoubtedly an ‘empire strikes back’ effect: values and methods developed in the more authoritarian environments of Britain’s colonies coming home to roost. (A high proportion of British secret service personnel had imperial backgrounds.) That such activity was reviled in mainland Britain may, perversely, have aided its development; if it had been more generally accepted it could have been monitored and controlled. But the existence of MI5, SIS and GCHQ was formally admitted only in the 1980s, and Aldrich gives several examples of GCHQ’s hiding what it got up to not only from the public, but also from its sister secret services and even prime ministers. This gave it room to manoeuvre well outside the bounds of what would be acceptable to the public. But politicians weren’t blameless. ‘All prime ministers love intelligence,’ the diplomat Nicholas Henderson claimed: it allows them to believe that they have a ‘direct line to something that no other ordinary departments have’.

At the beginning it all looked innocent enough. GCHQ grew out of the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, now famous for its contribution to the breaking of German military codes, which no one saw as a ‘threat to personal liberty’ – rather the reverse. It also acquired something of a cuddly image, which may have disarmed people later on. The early code-breakers were eccentric, untidy individualists, usually Oxbridge mathematicians, chess champions and expert crossword-puzzle solvers, assisted by bevies of debutantes whose tedious job it was to transcribe their data. (This is a caricature, but a recent book on Bletchley shows it is not so far from the truth.)[*] The image is important, because it was supposed to say something about Britain’s essential superiority over the Germans, who could muster more regiments than we could, but were far too regimented to make the best use of them. What Britain lacked in brute strength it made up for in ingenuity and wit.

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[*] The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay (Aurum, 368 pp., £20, May, 978 1 84513 539 3).

[†] Reviewed by Bernard Porter in the LRB of 19 November 2009.