Richard Aldrich, an accomplished cold war intelligence historian, traces GCHQ’s evolvement from a wartime code-breaking operation based in the Bedfordshire countryside, staffed by eccentric crossword puzzlers, to one of the world leading espionage organisations.
As we become ever-more aware of how our governments “eavesdrop” on our conversations, Aldrich provides a gripping exploration of British spy agency Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ). GCHQ is the successor to the famous Bletchley Park wartime code-breaking organisation and is the largest and most secretive intelligence organisation in the country. During the war, it commanded more staff than MI5 and MI6 combined and has produced a number of intelligence triumphs, as well as some notable failures. Since the end of the Cold War, it has played a pivotal role in shaping Britain’s secret state.
It is packed full of dramatic spy stories that shed fresh light on Britain’s role in the Cold War – from the secret tunnels dug beneath Vienna and Berlin to tap Soviet phone lines, and daring submarine missions to gather intelligence from the Soviet fleet, to the notorious case of Geoffrey Prime, one of the most damaging moles ever recruited by the Soviets inside British intelligence. Aldrich recounts the bizarre tale of microdots, invisible inks, briefcases of cash, and Prime’s eventual arrest in 1982 not for espionage, but for sexual assaults on children, which GCHQ strongly resisted investigating for fear of embarrassing itself in the eyes of its American friends. Events surrounding GCHQ’s other famous leaker, Katherine Gun, are also well covered. She revealed in 2003 that GCHQ planned to eavesdrop on UN Security Council members as part of transatlantic efforts to secure a resolution to legitimize an invasion of Iraq.
Aldrich charts how, by 1964, GCHQ’s demands and hidden financial allocations exceeded the entire cost of the Foreign Office. Its managers lobbied for a string of ambitious and costly projects: a nuclear-powered, aircraft-carrier-sized spy ship (never built); a small force of sky-sweeping Nimrod spy planes (flying from Lincolnshire now); and a spy satellite, Zircon (which never left the ground).
The book reveals for the first time how GCHQ operators based in Cheltenham affected the outcome of military confrontations in far-flung locations such as Indonesia and Malaya, and exposes the shocking case of three GCHQ workers who were killed in an infamous shootout with terrorists while working undercover in Turkey.
During the 1960s and 1970s, military risks were taken and important foreign policy decisions managed to support the demands of the intelligence collectors. Among these events was the manipulation of decisions about the British military presence in Cyprus solely to obtain convenient real estate for GCHQ and radar bases, and the deportation of the Chagos Islanders en masse from their homes on Diego Garcia. As Aldrich puts it, “the sigint tail had begun to wag the policy dog”.
For readers interested in GCHQ’s technical contributions there is a good section on its secret invention of public key cryptography four years before a very similar algorithm was published by US academics (the GCHQ website today protests, “the Americans were credited with the invention but GCHQ actually got there first!”). Its later attempts to suppress public use of the technology are also unpicked (though oddly enough omitted from GCHQ’s website).
After decades of darkness, “GCHQ was unmasked in the summer of 1976”, the book acknowledges, by a “path-breaking” article entitled “The Eavesdroppers“, which Duncan Campbell wrote for Time Out. The agency’s unwilling transition to public awareness was consolidated by the subsequent “ABC” Official Secrets Act trial of 1978, directed at Campbell and two others. Aldrich continues: “together Duncan Campbell and James Bamford [who wrote the first book about GCHQ’s American equivalent, the NSA] have confirmed a fundamental truth: that there are no secrets, only lazy researchers”.