In a recent edition I talked about MI6, which was once called SIS, and which, oddly enough, is mostly referred to these days using that original acronym (the Secret Intelligence Service). In many ways the service is similar to the United States’ CIA. Just as in that vast country the FBI (founded by Edgar Hoover) has some similarities with Britain’s MI5, in re the CIA and the SIS are supposed to deal with overt and covert overseas surveillance (and actions). The FBI and MI5 are supposed to deal with national or interior security and/ or surveillance.
Whatever you call them, between the two, no citizen can keep any secrets hidden from the all-seeing eye. George Orwell was right, as usual. The ordinary citizen may not know this, but governmental organisations know ALL (from your CV to your favourite toothpaste) – about YOU.
A number of vaguely sinister invented words cover all secret intelligence; gathered electronically it is called ‘sigint’, for instance, while ‘humint’ covers intelligence gathered by human initiative. In case this is not enough, there are also ‘comint’, ‘elint’, ‘comsec’, ‘sinews’ and ‘sigmod’. I leave you to analyse those terms. I bet one of them has something to do with sexual intelligence.
The third and least known secret intelligence service in Britain is simply called GCHQ, or Government Communications Headquarters. This was the last to be founded, and enjoyed such a low public profile you could not really see it. This organisation is housed expensively and over a very large area near Cheltenham. I am told the building looks like a ‘doughnut’, and indeed it is known as this, especially by the Americans whose military architecture is normally more pentagonic.
GCHQ permits the British government to examine every message that passes between you and me, and our colleagues between themselves. Author Richard Aldrich has just published a book about the organisation (GCHQ: the uncensored story of Britain’s most secret intelligence agency, Harper, £30) in which he claims that the surveillance capability makes it ‘the most insidious threat to personal liberty’ we must confront today. Of course this is all to do with electronics, computers, e- and gmail, SMSs, texts and what you talk about on the telephone (line or cell) with your mother-in-law. To date, the message you write with a quill pen on a Birthday or Christmas card will remain secret as long as its recipient does not sell it to the Daily Mail.
The very existence of MI5, SIS and GCHQ was never officially admitted until the 1980s. In his book R. Aldrich gives several examples of what GCHQ used to get up to which it hid from public view. It also hid what it was doing from the sister services and the Prime Minister, which makes it not at all unsinister.
The politicians themselves were not blameless in this imbroglio. ‘All prime ministers love intelligence’, says diplomat Nicholas Henderson; ‘it allows them to believe that they have a direct line to something that no other ordinary departments have’.
We are now told that GCHQ, unlike SIS and MI5, started ordinarily enough. Nothing sinister there really don’t you know? It came out of the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, super-famous for the breaking of enemy codes during the Second War. It developed a teddy bear image (entirely on purpose), rather like your favourite uncle, which was disarming. Code-breakers tended to be untidy, eccentric mathematicians and physicists from Oxbridge, generally good at chess, crosswords puzzles and seduction. They were assisted by dozens of pretty girls whose boring job was to transcribe the odd professors’ conclusions on to paper and file them – between encounters in cold bedrooms in country hotels.
This may sound like Swiftean imagery again, but a recent book on the goings on at Bletchley would seem to prove the case. The image was created precisely to say something about Britain’s superiority over German intelligence. The Germans were always very good at mustering enough men to fill their regiments, but were then too regimented (or regimental) to make good use of them. The German wastage of manpower and blood in the Second War is at the same time phenomenal and outrageous. It was the same in the intelligence services. What Britain lacked in manpower and brute strength it made for in wit, initiative and ingenuity. Or so we are supposed to believe.
The image GCHQ had in the early days stuck fast, like eh, ‘manure to a blanket’ as a chronicler has it. Generals said they visited the Headquarters and left with the impression of ‘grubby pullovers’. But they had to recognise that the Headquarters personnel were ‘brighter than the chaps gathered from the bar at Boodle’s or White’s who made up much of the SIS. GCHQ was less of a social club than the others, giving it better chance of recruitment among all three classes, not just those expensively educated at public school. But, some of the visitors wondered, might not this classlessness be inherently dangerous? Could the lower classes be trusted, they asked. They need not have bothered. GCHQ was found to provide evidence (for those who knew of its existence) of Britain’s ongoing pre-eminence in a conflict that needed extremely clever minds, not just huge economic and military resources (the USA). It was the brain-power to be found in the three intelligence services which maintained them in their place on the top table.
But America wanted British Intelligence not for its first class minds but for the bodies – men and women who could be listening posts both in Britain and in the gradually collapsing colonial empire overseas. In return, Aldrich tells us, Britain got American technology, infinitely more important to sigint than good brains. All this came at a price. GCHQ was in effect forced by its alliance with the US National Security Agency to spend too much time and energy in spying on the USSR. This was unnecessary, as well as irritating to the Soviets.
As usually happens, relations between the US and British intelligence services were not as sweet as some had predicted. They clashed over Cyprus. They argued about Diego García, where a whole island was cleared of its population in order to provide space for American intelligence installations. They did not cooperate with the American dream over Palestine/Israel; Britain held back information because GCHQ knew that that these two countries were not entirely entranced with each other.
Personality clashes happened all the time. In the 1980s Maychurch of GCHQ and Odom of NSA did not like each other at all. The American thought (and frequently said) that the British were bumbling and patronising amateurs. He did not find the British amusing: ‘just a pain in the ass’, he complained The strangely accented Henry Kissinger, suspicious of the strangely accented Edward Heath, actually suspended intelligence relations with Britain in 1973. Both countries were suspicious of the fact that from both poured a steady output of traitors. Margaret Thatcher’s ban on the presence of trade unions in intelligence systems provoked a mass walk-out (the brain-drain) of half the best workers at GCHQ. Off went the boffins to much better-paid jobs in the private sector. The polygraph or lie-detector was forced on to the Brtitish by the Americans, who thought it simply wannerful, but when it was tried out on two hundred probably loyal MI5 officers, 37% of them failed to pass the test.
GCHQ also joined the sad and increasing roll-call of services which dismally failed to predict most world calamities: The Korean War jumped out of the bag unnoticed; the Russian atomic bomb was a bombe surprise, though the Chinese one wasn’t; the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia came as a shock; so did the Yom Kippur War. GCHQ’s heavy concentration on Russia meant that it did not not notice the growing threat of Middle Eastern terrorism; no-one knew that the Shah of Iran was about to be thrown out with the garbage; if someone knew about Argentine intentions to occupy the Falklands Islands they kept it quiet; the Wall was half way down in Berlin before newspaper headlines made this clear to most leaders; both the US and Britain had no intelligence warning of the impending attack on the Twin Towers. The list is horrific; and what about Intelligence being so adamant that Iraq had WMDs? Iraq had not got WMDs, or rather if it had got them they were not evident. Aldrich’s book claims that Britain had prior knowledge of the events that would lead to the shooting of a policewoman outside the Libyan Embassy in April, 1984, but that ‘office hours’ prevented a suitable reaction. Where GCHQ did a wonderful job was in predicting the invasion of Kuwait by some five days, but politicians on either side of the Atlantic took no notice.
For years now many Britons have asked themselves if the intelligence marriage between the US and Britain is any use, or just a very expensive conceit. But we still have GCHQ, and the constantly renewed new forms of electronic information-gathering makes it more and more powerful, and possibly more dangerous, as Aldrich implies; certainly more dangerous than the older established secret services. This may be true, but we may piously hope that GCHQ is also on to the horrible threat now being made by cyber terrorism –something that really could stop the world and make us all get off.