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.

The image stuck. GCHQ was always a bit sloppy – early on, visiting generals complained at the ‘colourful pullovers’ – and its personnel were far brighter than SIS’s ‘failed cavalry officers recruited in White’s or Boodle’s’. It was also less socially exclusive than the other secret services, giving it a wider pool of potential talent to trawl, though that was also thought to pose dangers: could the other classes’ loyalties be trusted? Despite these worries, GCHQ was thought to provide evidence, for those who knew of its existence, of Britain’s continuing pre-eminence in a field that required clever minds, not huge economic or military resources, to sustain it. This is what justified Britain’s place at the top table alongside its more powerful but duller-witted American ally.

The Anglo-American intelligence alliance is Aldrich’s main subject, though the reality comes nowhere near the rose-tinted preview I’ve just given. The marriage took place in the mid-1940s, but the details of the contract are still secret. It is clear, however, that from the start the US wanted Britain not for its mind (those clever code-breakers) but for its body, specifically the listening-posts we could provide both on our own soil and in the remnants of the collapsing overseas empire. In return Britain got American technology, which was increasingly becoming more important to sigint than mere mental power, and which did require great material resources – mostly to build and launch orbital satellites. (Britain’s attempt to compete with the US here, the Zircon project, collapsed in 1987.)

But the alliance came at a price. Britain’s foreign policy was skewed in deference to American requirements, notably in the case of Cyprus, where Kissinger’s ‘explosive’ reaction to Britain’s intention to withdraw from its bases forced Harold Wilson to stay his hand; and Diego Garcia, where a whole island was cleared of its inhabitants to satisfy the needs of American intelligence. As for GCHQ itself, one of the effects of its alliance with the National Security Agency was to focus its attention more closely on the USSR than might otherwise have been the case, and more than later came to appear sensible.

Neither side completely trusted the other, and they did not always co-operate as they were supposed to. Over Palestine/Israel in the 1940s and 1950s, for example, Britain held intelligence back from the Americans because the two countries were ‘at loggerheads’. There were frequent personality clashes, the most serious of them in the 1980s between Peter Marychurch of GCHQ and Bill Odom of NSA, who regarded Marychurch as a patronising amateur. ‘Socially,’ Odom said, ‘I no longer find the British amusing, merely a pain in the ass.’ Kissinger, cross with Edward Heath, actually suspended intelligence relations with Britain in 1973. The two countries also suspected that each other’s security had been compromised – quite naturally perhaps, given the steady trickle of traitors that emerged from both. The NSA thought GCHQ would be more secure if it adopted the polygraph, which it steadfastly refused to do, largely because of trade union opposition. It was this that provoked Thatcher’s famous ban on unions there in 1984, though Aldrich claims this was not the result of an explicit demand from the Americans. The ban was counter-productive, in that it undermined morale and drove half of GCHQ’s brightest boffins out into better-paid jobs in the private sector. It was also pointless: the polygraph was pretty useless. (Four NSA defectors to the Soviets had passed it; when it was later tested on 200 presumably loyal MI5 officers, 37 per cent failed.)

So, what did Britain gain in return for all this aggro? Prestige, supposedly. Britain ‘ached to join’ the ‘new super-club of sigint powers, of which there were only two members, America and Russia’; ached to ‘remain one of the world’s leading intelligence powers’; to have ‘something no other European country had’; to become ‘the biggest fish in a European pool’; to ‘reinforce the distinction in the American mind between Britain as a trusted second party and the continental Europeans, an altogether lower species of sigint animal’ and so on: it was all a way of compensating, it appears, for our recent spectacular decline in other ways. More materially, the US had made clear that its assistance to Britain in the field of nuclear weapons was contingent on Britain’s co-operation. (Prestige again.) ‘The intelligence relationship,’ according to one Foreign Office official in 1975, was ‘as much about watching Washington as about watching the rest of the world.’ But no one has ever proved that this made much difference: that it enabled Britain to modify US policy, for example. Take prestige out of the equation, and it all looks rather one-sided.

It worked well for GCHQ, which received extra resources; but whether it helped GCHQ work particularly well for Britain is questionable. The high hopes for it after the successes at Bletchley Park were disappointed: Soviet codes were never cracked – there was no return to the ‘heady days of Ultra’. In truth, the supposed advantage that Britain’s ‘braininess’ had given it over the Americans had evaporated by the 1960s at the latest: they are ‘less dependent upon us’, one deputy director of GCHQ wrote, ‘because they are getting better themselves’. The list Aldrich gives of GCHQ’s (and the NSA’s) failures of prediction doesn’t make comfortable reading: the Korean War; the Russian atomic bomb (they did better with the Chinese one); the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; the Yom Kippur war; the rise of Middle Eastern terrorism (Aldrich suggests that GCHQ’s failure here was a consequence of its concentration on Russia); the overthrow of the shah of Iran; the Falklands invasion; the end of the Cold War; the attack on the Twin Towers; and the non-existence of WMDs (Aldrich believes that ‘groupthink’ – intelligence agencies infecting each other – was to blame). GCHQ may have had prior knowledge of the events that would lead to the shooting of PC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan People’s Bureau in London in April 1984, but failed to pass it on because it was out of office hours. It did apparently predict the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait a good five days in advance, but the politicians took no notice. It did better in colonial or quasi-colonial situations (Egypt, Malaysia). Overall, however, its record is not distinguished.

It was partly for this reason that, in the 1970s, a few leading politicians began to question whether the Anglo-American intelligence alliance really was that valuable. One sceptic – predictably, in view of his lukewarm feelings about the ‘special relationship’ – was Edward Heath, who in 1970 asked his defence secretary Lord Carrington what Britain got ‘from the Americans in return’ for the various sigint facilities they were demanding. He was told that the benefits were ‘relatively invisible’ but ‘nonetheless extremely valuable’. That didn’t cut much ice with Heath, who continued to be obstructive, provoking Kissinger’s tizzy in 1973. But Heath didn’t last long. Twenty years later, the Treasury minister Jonathan Aitken dared to wonder what ‘real value’ to ‘British national interests’ there was in monitoring messages between Russian tank commanders in Chechnya. He didn’t last long either, but he did manage to clip £200 million off GCHQ’s annual budget. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, the Labour prime minister David Lange, from whose country the US was threatening to withdraw intelligence co-operation in reprisal for his government’s ban on ships carrying nuclear weapons, responded that the sigint America sent him was pretty useless, and that cutting it off was probably a good thing, giving him ‘more time to do the crossword’. That called America’s bluff; but not for long.

Another line of attack was over GCHQ’s targeting and methods. From the late 1960s a series of revelations about both American and British intelligence agencies created real concern that they might be getting out of hand: the Americans were employing (very) ‘dirty tricks’ against foreigners they didn’t like, while the British were straying some way beyond their legitimate area of operations – defending against foreign threats. As late as 1967 the British public could still be shocked by the discovery of ‘cable vetting’, which even the Daily Express reckoned was redolent of ‘Big Brother’, and by evidence (uncovered by Chapman Pincher) of collusion between private telecommunications companies and GCHQ. It was at about this time that the secret services’ remits were extended to cover economic as well as military and political intelligence, on behalf of the CBI as well as the state. Some suspected that they were also spying on domestic politicians, including Wilson, whose belief that 10 Downing Street was bugged is dismissed by Aldrich, in common with many conservative intelligence historians, as a sign of ‘paranoia’; but only, presumably, because his book went to press before it was revealed – in April – that Wilson had been right. In the 1970s journalistic suspicion and criticism of the ‘secret state’ mounted. Dick White, a head of SIS, told a colleague that even his own children had complained about his ‘shady business’. He had replied: ‘Do you consider me to be any less good a husband and father and good citizen?’ Aldrich thinks that rejoinder was ‘a good one’, but shady work is shady, whatever the domestic and civic virtues of the people doing it.

GCHQ’s shadiest work was probably its surveillance of Britain’s allies; and of its citizens. That countries spy on their own allies is ‘among the darkest secrets of alliance politics in Western Europe’, Aldrich says, and underlines ‘the duplicitous nature of friendships’ in this field. The practice goes back to GCHQ’s beginnings, and notoriously culminated in its eavesdropping campaign (conducted at the request of the Americans) against members of the UN Security Council in the lead-up to the Iraq war. Apparently such behaviour had gone on for years. When GCHQ’s surveillance of British citizens started is less certain. Aldrich points to a directive of 1973, which added the ‘stability of the UK’ to its list of priorities. Terrorism – the IRA’s, the PLO’s etc – had a lot to do with this, blurring the previously pretty clear ‘dividing line between domestic and international’; but it’s clear that GCHQ’s remit did not end with that. ‘Extremist organisations’ were another new target. The label permitted quite a lot of semantic latitude. It could be applied to civil libertarians, for example, like the journalists who originally blew the gaff on GCHQ in 1976. The defence committee at their trial was almost certainly infiltrated. Since then, new technologies have made it very much easier for GCHQ – and others – to listen in to us, quite undetected. Indeed, the problem now is sorting through ‘every single little electronic bleep and fart’ that is ‘hoovered up’.

We cannot know quite how far into this brave new world we have slipped already. Aldrich’s book is revealing, and ‘uncensored’, as its subtitle proclaims; but that is because it’s not an ‘authorised’ history like Christopher Andrew’s recent study of MI5, and so has not had access to the kinds of official material that might require censoring.[†] This sort of project offers a trade-off between knowledge and freedom, and Aldrich has chosen freedom (if he had any choice). But that also has its drawbacks. At one point he claims it as ‘a fundamental truth: that there are no secrets, only lazy researchers’; but that is nonsense, and directly contradicted here. For example, at one point he comes up with the revelation that there was – perhaps there still is – a fourth British intelligence service, LCSA (London Communications Security Agency), ‘the technical security equivalent of MI5’, about which ‘almost nothing is known.’ If that is so, it’s a secret that no amount of diligent research by outsiders is likely to uncover (unless WikiLeaks comes up with something.)

We should continue to ask – as Heath did, and as many others have done – whether GCHQ is really worth all the millions of pounds we spend on it. Let us think the unthinkable for a moment. If Britain had had no secret services over the past hundred years – except in the fields of tactical military and criminal intelligence, including terrorism – would we have been any worse off? The achievements of British-American sigint – predicting wars, revolutions and the like – are patchy at best. But does that matter? So it failed to notice the Soviet bomb – what harm did that do us? And what good did it do us to have spotted the Chinese one? Could we have prevented the Iranian revolution if GCHQ had anticipated it? And would that have been wise? In the case of WMDs we would obviously have been better off without it. Then again: all that combing around for Soviet ‘moles’ – what good did that do? It can even be argued that a few moles are a good thing. Aldrich cites the example of ‘the penetration of Nato registries by Eastern Bloc spies’ in the 1960s, which he claims was ‘so complete that the Warsaw Pact had no choice but to conclude that the intentions of Western countries were genuinely defensive and benign’. So thank God (perhaps) for the traitors. Secret intelligence is exciting for politicians; but it may not be crucial, or worth the expense.

Especially if it carries with it the dangers that so clearly ‘frighten’ Aldrich. He doesn’t think that GCHQ is really at fault: it is ‘simply a vast mirror, and it reflects the spirit of the age’. The problem is that new forms of electronic information gathering make GCHQ much more efficient, but also more dangerous, than the older secret services. Short of public accountability, which is clearly problematic in this sphere, the best restraint on authoritarianism is inefficiency. Those ‘failed cavalry officers’ from White’s or Boodle’s provide some reassurance, which we don’t get from GCHQ’s new panopticon. But then failed cavalry officers aren’t much help against terrorists; or against the cyber terrorism that we are now told is the other key threat to our security. GCHQ presumably are on to that.

[*] 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.