The key to global British power
GCHQ: The uncensored story of Britain’s most secret intelligence agency by Richard J Aldrich
Reviewed by Mahan Abedin
“GCHQ provides intelligence, protects information and informs relevant UK policy to keep our society safe and successful in the Internet Age“, so reads the headline message on the Government Communication Headquarters website. This is a classic example of British understatement, effortlessly disguising what is in fact the most strategic asset in British foreign policy formulation and implementation.
If there is one single organization that explains the longevity of the United Kingdom’s global reach in the post-colonial period, then it is surely the GCHQ, a massive worldwide eavesdropping enterprise, which obtains over 80% of the United Kingdom’sintelligence and provides critical support to both the domestic Security Service (MI5) and the foreign Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), as well as the British armed forces.
Founded more than 90 years ago, the GCHQ specializes in the art of secret listening, and after America’s National Security Agency (NSA), it is the most prolific signals intelligence (sigint) agency in the world.
It is against this backdrop of global dominance and strategic indispensability that Richard J Aldrich’s GCHQ: The uncensored story of Britain’s most secret intelligence agency, immediately attracts elevated significance. A scrupulous researcher, Aldrich’s main achievement has been to construct an independent and non-official history of the GCHQ.
Indeed, unlike many other academics and journalists who write about intelligence history – in particular Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew – Aldrich does not appear to be tied to the British secret state. This independence from British intelligence enables Aldrich to put the GCHQ’s successes and failures into perspective. However, Aldrich fails to draw the correct strategic lessons from the totality of his findings and that is the biggest flaw of his book.
A global spying network
The GCHQ’s origins date to November 1, 1919, with the founding of the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS). Over the next two decades, the GCCS gradually came to be known as the GCHQ and from 1946 onwards the latter name was invoked more or less exclusively.
The GCHQ’s mission is to collect signals intelligence, which can incorporate a wide range of communications and accompanying specialist tasks, including communication intelligence (comint), electronic intelligence (elint) and many other “ints”. But in essence, sigint is the unauthorized interception of communications sent by wireless, satellite or electronic means. The GCHQ’s core expertise is cryptography, namely the breaking of codes and ciphers and in turn the innovation of new and stronger cryptographic techniques and systems.
The GCHQ’s main task is to attack the encryption systems of other countries, entities and individuals. Additionally, the eavesdropping agency is a provider of protective security to British government departments, helping them to encrypt and otherwise protect their most sensitive documents and data.
Aldrich provides a coherent and chronological history of the GCHQ and displays a refreshing ability to explain the spy agency’s highly technical and complex work to the lay reader. However, the majority of his findings have been exposed by other publications since the 1980s, when journalists, academics and former spies began to write about the British intelligence community in earnest.
While there is not much new in the book, Aldrich’s work rises above other efforts to some degree in the effortlessly fluent and scrupulously researched manner in which he has presented his findings.
Any book on the GCHQ cannot ignore Bletchley Park and “Ultra”, the highly secret program to decrypt German radio signals and other communications during World War II. The remarkable effort at Bletchley Park is now widely considered to have given the United Kingdom and the Allies a significant edge over Germany and thus shortened the war by at least 12 months.
While Aldrich recounts the exploits at Bletchley Park, he is keener to unravel the mystery of the post-war UKUSA Agreement, a much misunderstood subject, whose unraveling has not been helped by sensationalist and conspiracy-oriented reporting and analysis. Often referred to as “Echelon” by the global media, this agreement is widely understood to underpin Anglo-American domination of the sigint realm and by extension the world of secret intelligence.
Using declassified files and other sources Aldrich outlines the intricacies of the UKUSA Agreement as more a “complex network of different alliances built up from many different overlapping agreements” than a single treaty. UKUSA soon incorporated a second tier of Anglo-Saxon countries, namely Canada, Australia and New Zealand, thereby creating a massive sigint network with global coverage.
Aldrich’s main contribution to the understanding of Echelon is his detailed description of the periodic tensions underlying the core UKUSA sigint agreement. Most importantly, he recounts the episode in July 1973 when the legendary American statesman Henry Kissinger ordered an abrupt termination to all intelligence cooperation with the UK as a retaliatory measure over disputes on European security policy.
While this row proved temporary and cooperation soon resumed in earnest, fissures in the cross-Atlantic intelligence relationship continued to fester beneath the surface. According to Aldrich, tensions reached new heights in the mid-1980s when William Eldridge Odom, the then head of the NSA, determined to reorient American sigint cooperation away from the UK.
While Aldrich depicts the notoriously abrasive Odom in a negative light, he does, however, convincingly question his plans to forge closer ties with the German BND (responsible for both human intelligence and sigint), because of the latter’s aggressive and increasingly global sigint activities in the 1980s, which even included cooperation with the Taiwanese code-breaking agency.
Aldrich’s work suffers from key flaws. First, his treatment of commercial encryption is short and thin on details to the extent that he appears not to have a deep and specialized understanding of this topic. The proliferation of commercial encryption software in the past 20 years has been a major headache for Western sigint organizations, and although these agencies have expended considerable effort at subverting commercial encryption, there are still a range of products that defeat even the most concerted and sophisticated cryptanalytic attacks.
Aldrich also largely falls for the GCHQ and NSA line that it is only organized criminals and terrorists who stand to benefit from strong encryption, neglecting to explain that there may be legitimate reasons why a wide range of actors would want to hide the contents of their communications from the prying eyes of the GCHQ and the NSA.
Second, the latter chapters of the book, in particular the final chapter entitled “From Bletchley Park to a Brave New World?”, steadily deteriorate in analytical quality. Aldrich appears to be arguing that the GCHQ has been overwhelmed by the global communications revolution – underlined by the explosion in the use of e-mail and mobile phones – and is consequently struggling to find its bearings in the 21st century.
This betrays a remarkably unimaginative mindset, for surely if there is anything to be learnt by the forensic study of the GCHQ, it is that it is always several steps ahead of the game. Indeed, it is very difficult to believe that immensely resourceful and far-sighted agencies like the GCHQ and the NSA – which employ the best mathematical brains on the planet – would be drastically wrong-footed by developments in the wider world.
Aldrich’s mistake in underestimating the predictive capacity of the GCHQ leads him to make another and this time an altogether far more serious error, and one with profound political consequences.
He argues that the development of the Big Brother society in the UK and the Western world in general, characterized by the mass capturing and storage of ordinary individual and commercial data (the great majority of which are “in clear”, ie in non-encrypted form) by sigint agencies and their commercial subsidiaries and allies, is a consequence of conscious choices made by citizens.
In other words, by choosing to make prolific and in some cases doubtless excessive use of new communications technologies, we have invited the GCHQ to intrude into and map out every aspect of our lives. This is a dangerously complacent and lazy argument.
Aldrich’s description of this so-called brave new world where “no one is in control” sums up the analytical poverty of the last chapters of his book. It inevitably gives rise to the suspicion that despite his intense 10-year research, the author doesn’t appear to fully grasp all the dimensions of this highly sensitive topic.
Finally, Aldrich fails to apply his findings to potential developments in international relations in the years and decades ahead. The world of sigint is changing beyond recognition – with super-computers and cyberspace defining the new battle grounds – and any aspiring global power would be wise to make massive investments in this domain.
GCHQ: The uncensored story of Britain’s most secret intelligence agency by Richard J Aldrich. HarperPress, June 2010. ISBN 9780007357123. 688 pages.
Mahan Abedin is a senior researcher in terrorism studies and a consultant to independent media in Iran.