GCHQ Revealed: Inside Her Majesty’s Listening Service
The Snowden files have brought the shocking espionage activities of the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters into the open. Former employees describe an agency with shifting goals, a strong honor code — and an inferiority complex.
On a Monday in January of 2003, Katharine Gun received an email that worried her. Gun, a 28-year-old linguist and analyst with the British intelligence service, was a calm, thoughtful woman. The message, which was classified “top secret” and came from a department head of an American intelligence service, informed a British counterparts that, “as you all probably know by now,” a joint eavesdropping operation was being planned against United Nations delegations. Gun couldn’t believe her eyes.
At the time, the UN was in the midst of a debate about a possible invasion of Iraq. The fateful appearance of the US Secretary of State Colin Powell before the UN Security Council, in which Powell would attempt to secure allies for an attack on Baghdad, was to take place in five days. Gun, like many of her fellow Britons, was opposed to a war and considered what she should do about the email. By targeting UN diplomats with their espionage, weren’t the United States and Great Britain trying to forcibly bring about a war? Were they trying to determine diplomats’ feeling about a conflict? Was it legal?
After hesitating for two days, Gun forwarded the email to an acquaintance with contacts in the media. Four weeks later, the email was printed on the cover page of the Observer.
Gun may not have been able to prevent the war, but, in the ensuing scandal, she was able to, for a brief moment, shine on a spotlight on one of the United Kingdom’s most secretive agency: GCHQ, or Government Communications Headquarters.
A Ballooning, Secretive Agency
GCHQ’s spies, who see themselves as the country’s eyes and ears, don’t like being the center of attention. It was only through the actions of American whistleblower Edward Snowden that the worldlearned about many of their operations. The documents Snowden leaked, from the innermost circles of the US National Security Agency (NSA), revealed that the British agency has begun monitoring increasingly large portions of global data traffic in recent years — infiltrating computer networks around the world, launching attacks and extracting information from mobile telephones.
In 2008, GCHQ agents began testing the “Tempora” program, which they hoped would allow them to tap into global data links, especially fiber optic cables. In the four years that followed, the agency’s access to data grew by 7,000 percent, according to a PowerPoint presentation described in the British newspaper The Guardian. Today the agency — which cites “mastering the Internet” as one of its objectives and boasts about extracting more data from the web than the NSA — employs 6,100 women and men, almost as many as MI5 and MI6, Britain’s domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, combined.
While GCHQ refuses to answer questions about its objectives, its former employees paint a picture of an agency that, in decades of existence, has become a modern surveillance monster.
The Paper-Age Spy
It takes a while for Mike Grindley to come to the door. Grindley will be turning 77 this year and is no longer as steady on his feet as he was when he began working at GCHQ. Night is falling outside, one of those wet, cold English evenings. He has had a fire going since noon in his house in Cheltenham, a small city on the edge of the Cotswolds, a two-hour drive northwest of London. The headquarters of GCHQ are a 10-minute drive from Grindley’s house. Many of his former coworkers live in the area. GCHQ headquarters on the outskirts of town are like a giant magnet. It isn’t easy for former employees to escape its pull.
Grindley’s house is full of tall stacks of books, magazines, flyers, notes, letters and newspaper clippings. He doesn’t write emails or own a mobile phone, and he can only be reached by calling his landline. Mike Grindley, clearly, is a spy from the paper age.
He joined the agency in August 1961, after serving in the Royal Air Force in Hong Kong and then studying Classical Chinese in Cambridge. A GCHQ headhunter recruited him on campus when he was 24. He was awestruck when he entered the headquarters building in Cheltenham for the first time, but he quickly felt at home in the agency’s relaxed and jovial atmosphere. “We used each other’s Christian names,” says Grindley.
He witnessed the agency’s rapid growth as it expanded its monitoring of international communication routes during the Cold War and GCHQ’s antennas became the kingdom’s ears on the world. In 1967, it was revealed that the agency was intercepting telexes and telegrams sent from the UK to Europe and other countries. As historian and intelligence researcher Richard Aldrich has written, these ended up in GCHQ hands with the help of Western Union, Cable & Wireless and other telephone service providers — an early example of cooperation between communications companies and the government.
Grindley earned a starting salary of £768 (€935 or $1,280). He excelled at his job, which was to provide information about surveillance targets in China, and he rose through the ranks. When he left in 1988, his annual salary was £19,000. “All the awkward problems landed on my desk,” he says. His coworkers called him “Mister China.”
‘Turing Was Our God’
In Grindley’s early years, the agency was so secret that it wasn’t even allowed to talk about its greatest triumph. During World War II, employees of the Government Code and Cypher School at the Bletchley Park estate, the precursor organization of GCHQ, intercepted radio messages from Hitler’s Wehrmacht.
Hitler’s troops used the Enigma coding machine to encrypt their messages, but the British agents at Bletchley Park eventually managed to crack the code using an electromagnetic computing machine, an early form of the computer. The mastermind behind this achievement was Alan Turing, a brilliant computer scientist who, together with his colleagues, worked feverishly in drafty barracks to defeat the Nazis. “Turing was our god,” says Grindley. Turing taught the agency that any code could be cracked with the necessary intelligence and technology.
Grindley traveled to secret conferences in the United States and Canada, where he and his counterparts with the NSA and the Canadian intelligence service discussed the latest developments. The world was divided into blocs — communism was pitted against capitalism, and China was an enemy — and his work seemed logical and ordered. But then Margaret Thatcher became prime minister.
Like his father, Grindley was a member of the Labour Party and joined a trade union at an early age. Although he was relatively unenthusiastic about strikes, he felt that a union offered advantages when it came to negotiations with employers. Thatcher, however, prohibited GCHQ employees from unionizing. As a result, GCHQ employees publicly revolted against their government in a particularly bizarre episode in British intelligence history.
To the discomfort of Thatcher, the Conservatives and those in the agency who wanted to keep the intelligence service a secret, the employees marched through Cheltenham with signs and banners, cheered on by the town’s residents. Grindley, determined not to be intimidated by the Iron Lady, marched at the head of the group.
GCHQ Turns Against Its Own
After refusing to leave the union, Grindley was suspended from GCHQ in 1984 and dismissed four years later. Senior members of the agency went with him, also in protest against Thatcher. “The organization lost some its greatest minds at that time,” says Grindley. They included mathematicians, technicians, language experts and cryptologists.
By the time Grindley left GCHQ, the lines between enemies and friends had become blurred. The organization, which had functioned virtually in silence during the Cold War, had adapted itself to the needs of the Americans, with whom the British government had concluded an intelligence agreement. GCHQ was no longer the brilliant, innocent club of geniuses and code-breakers who had fought against the Nazis: It was now eavesdropping on satellite phones, enlarging its antenna installations and turning its attentions inward. Grindley says he was spied on and shadowed by members of his own agency during the protests.
A New Landscape
Despite the bad press, most Britons still trusted their three intelligence agencies: the eavesdroppers of GCHQ, the foreign agents at MI6 and the domestic agents at MI5. They were helped by two fictitious MI6 agents, James Bond and George Smiley, who continue to work as advertisements for the organizations to this day.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the agency’s focus shifted. In the late 1980s, the listening stations GCHQ was operating in Germany and other parts of Europe were directed primarily at the Soviet Union, Poland and Czechoslovakia. In Cheltenham, analysts maintained databases of the tactical groupings of the Soviet armed forces, weapons stockpiles and radar frequencies. The reports were written primarily for the British Defense Ministry.
But when the Cold War ended, the focus shifted from Eastern Europe to targets as diverse as warlords in Somalia, arms dealers in the Balkans and drug gangs in Latin America. At the same time, mobile phone use was becoming more widespread and the Internet was growing, creating a glut of electronic information. GCHQ had to reinvent itself.
GCHQ Gets a Makeover
The man selected to lead this effort was David Omand, an ascetic careerist from London and a member of the London power circles who was treated with a mixture of disdain and fear by the spies in Cheltenham. Omand had joined GCHQ as an analyst in 1969. His duties included spying on the Soviet Union’s air defenses, but he had soon moved to a higher-ranking position with the Defense Ministry, and later worked at NATO in Brussels.
When Omand assumed the office of GCHQ director in 1996, he encountered an agency that had been created for the 20th century, which was now coming to an end. Country experts, linguists, crypto-analysts and programmers were working in a labyrinth of buildings with names like C Block and M Block, reminiscent of the barracks from the Alan Turing era. Technicians and managers were housed at opposite ends of the city. GCHQ still had the feeling of a Cold War agency, and Omand felt that the best approach would be to tear everything down.
He describes his plan while in a hotel lobby in downtown London, pausing to take a sip from his cup of Earl Grey tea. Omand is 66, but he is a long way from retirement. He recently studied mathematics and theoretical physics, teaches at King’s College London, gives lectures and writes books about the necessity of intelligence services. Omand, who says that surveillance is necessary, resembles the agency he once headed: a polite gentleman with a digital watch whom you would easily underestimate.
Breaking Into the Internet
He says that his agency came under growing pressure in the 1990s. The Foreign Office wanted to use its analytic powers, as did the police, the military and the prime minister. “All those customers had different needs, and their needs were much more time-sensitive.” Keeping the names of Russian commanders on file in a database was no longer sufficient. His eavesdroppers had to be able to intercept signals racing through fiber optic cables across the ocean floor. It was important to understand the 21st century. “We had to revolutionize the architecture of signals intelligence.”
Was there a deliberate decision to tap into the Internet at the time?
“It was more an evolution,” says Omand. The British had tapping into data flows even before the rise of the Internet — since the 1960s, the agency had used parabolic antennas in Cornwall to intercept satellite communications across the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. In 2001, a European Parliament investigation concluded that the United States and Great Britain, together with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, had established a global espionage system called Echelon “for the interception of private and commercial communications.” GCHQ was accessing larger and larger segments of voice and data communications, but hardly anyone noticed. Not even the experts at the European Parliament had figured out the full scope of GCHQ activities.
The agency began implementing Omand’s plans in the late 1990s. Omand himself had already been promoted to a position at the Home Office in 1998, but his revolution continued. The plans for the new headquarters were put into action. Instead of housing departments in separate buildings, all employees were to work in a ring-shaped main headquarters. Today, the building is nicknamed the “doughnut.”
British spies are obsessed with being smarter than their counterparts at the NSA. To this day, they proudly point out that in the early 1970s, they were ahead of the Americans in developing the so-called public key method of asymmetric deciphering. At the same time, however, they are also dependent on their partners across the Atlantic. In his book, “The Snowden Files,” Guardian journalist Luke Harding wrote that the United States paid the British £34.7 million for services in the 2011/2012 budget year alone. Part of GCHQ’s job is to suck up to the Americans — after all, that’s what the US are paying for.
According to Omand, the agency was initially overwhelmed by mobile phones, fiber optic cables and the Internet. The technicians and analysts couldn’t cope with the huge amount of data. “The volumes they carried were large, and the problem was getting rid of the stuff you didn’t want,” says Omand. It took them years to learn how to navigate this river of information.
Omand is the only ex-member of GCHQ who now defends his former employers in panel discussions and talk shows. His appearances are not coordinated with anyone, says Omand, “but secretly they probably approve.”
There is an unwritten law at GCHQ: Never talk about your work, especially with strangers. “Everyone knows everyone else,” says Grindley. “The staff GCHQ are very loyal, very patriotic,” says Omand. In the history of the surveillance agency, few employees have become disloyal and gone public with their criticism or misgivings. Katharine Gun, the woman who tried to prevent the Iraq war, is one of those exceptions.
For the last year and a half, Gun has been living in a small city on the Turkish Mediterranean coast with her Kurdish husband Yasar and their five-year-old daughter Hana.
She had ended up at GCHQ after she responded to an ad for Chinese experts the agency had placed in The Guardian in 2000. In January 2001, after a yearlong selection process, she reported for duty in Department A25, which was responsible for spying on foreign sources. Her job was to listen in on the conversations of Chinese diplomats in the UK and assess whether the content was relevant for the agency. It was the sort of headphone job analysts had performed since the old days of GCHQ. “You end up knowing a lot about people’s private lives,” she says.
Gun grew up as the daughter of an English professor in Taiwan, where she learned Mandarin. At 16, she moved to England, where she studied Japanese and Chinese. She felt comfortable in Cheltenham. She liked her coworkers. At lunch, they talked about the weather or who was sleeping with whom. At the same time, Gun sensed that she had joined a community that considered itself to be special, a community that kept silent about its activities. “The people from GCHQ are a different species,” she says.
Gun had been with the intelligence agency for two years and four weeks when she found the revealing email about the UN operation in her mailbox. The message was sent to about 100 recipients in Cheltenham and came from Frank Koza, the then head of the “Regional Targets” department at the NSA.
When Gun leaked the email and exposed Koza, the British agency’s reaction was strangely reserved. Gun had decided to turn herself in. When she told her boss, her only reaction was to say, with a sigh, “Oh, Katharine.” She spent a night in jail, and her apartment was searched. The charges were later dropped for “lack of evidence.” Things became quiet once again. The circle of silence worked perfectly.
To her former colleagues, Gun was now a leper. She fell into a depressive slump, but continued to live in Cheltenham for several more years. When she ran into acquaintances from the agency, the encounters were unpleasant for both of them. No one mentioned the email she had leaked. “It was spooky, as if nothing had happened,” she says.
It was business as usual at the agency. The debate over Gun’s exposé fizzled and the new headquarters, with its enormous buildings filled with servers and high-performance computers, was ready in 2003.
Nevertheless, GCHQ has remained a quintessentially British intelligence service. There is a chess club and a jokey “ghost-hunting” group, and there are quiz nights at a local pub. To this day, the eavesdroppers of Cheltenham prefer to keep to themselves, which might explain why they continue to agonize over Snowden’s revelations. Unlike the NSA, which recently began inviting journalists to its headquarters, the British spies merely seem to be holding their breath and praying that it will all be over soon.
There isn’t much to see when you stroll around GCHQ headquarters on the outskirts of Cheltenham: A building with a curved roof in the distance, poplar trees, barbed-wire fences and signs indicating that photography is forbidden. Two men in dark suits sit on a bench in front of the entrance, staring silently at the ground.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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