In an increasingly digital world, electronic communication is the deciding and dominant factor in making things happen. Markets move electronically; news and rumours of news are communicated electronically; people put their previously private thoughts not onto paper but into cyberspace – sometimes inadvertently – and, hey presto!, they find they are sharing them with the world.
In such an environment, for states to keep ahead – or even abreast – of their rivals, competitors, and potential enemies, an up-to-the-second, state-of-the-art electronic intelligence-gathering system is vital. Fortunately, as the distinguished intelligence historian Richard Aldrich believes, or ominously, as those concerned with our ever-diminishing civil liberties fear, we in Britain have such an instrument in GCHQ.
Though often talked about in vague terms, few (for obvious reasons) really know what happens inside GCHQ’s vast and obtrusive HQ outside Cheltenham – let alone in its myriad ‘outstations’ at home and abroad. It is, however, the third – and increasingly most important – leg of the tripod that forms Britain’s Intelligence apparatus, alongside its far better known ‘sister’ agencies MI5 (domestic counter-intelligence) and MI6 or SIS (foreign intelligence-gathering). As such, it is astonishing that Aldrich’s book is the first history ever devoted  exclusively to GCHQ – and it would be worth intelligence history buffs buying for that fact alone, quite apart from the fact that he is a serious historian and has had privileged access to the organisation.
Like its sister agencies, GCHQ traces its origins back to the menacing international power struggle that led to WWI. Far-sighted officers in Britain’s then world-supreme Royal Navy set up the nucleus of a code-busting operation in a room set aside for the purpose in the Old Admiralty building in Whitehall. When war came, Naval Intelligence recruited a team of Oxbridge academics – more used to solving The Times crossword puzzle in record time – to their team of code-breaking boffins. Led by the eccentric ‘Dilly’ Knox, a Cambridge classicist, Room 40, as the outfit became known was responsible for such intelligence coups as cracking the Zimmerman telegram – in which the Germans tried to induce Mexico to enter the war by offering them American states – which brought the USA into the conflict, and swung the stalemated struggle decisively the Allies’ way.
When WWII came, Knox reconstructed his code-breaking team, this time in the more spacious grounds of Bletchley Park, an ugly country house in Bedfordshire that as Station X (its official code name) became the nerve centre of Britain’s code-breaking operation. Here the boffins – including the brilliant pioneer of the computer, Cambridge super mathematician Alan Turing – worked on cracking the ‘Enigma’ codes – scrambled by the supposedly impregnable machines with which the German military encoded every single message passed to and from their armed forces. Such priceless intelligence – known as ‘Ultra’ – was seen only by Churchill and a handful of top commanders, and helped win such vital struggles as the Battle of the Atlantic. Grudgingly, these ‘golden eggs’, as Churchill christened ‘Ultra’, were also shared with Britain’s American ally.
Aldrich covers these early successes of what became GCHQ in fascinating detail. But the main focus of his book is the post-war history of GCHQ’s part in the Cold War and (necessarily more guarded) today’s war against international Islamist terrorism. Although written with the co-operation of the authorities, and therefore lacking much information about GCHQ’s failures, it told me quite a few ‘inside stories’ I had not known in detail before.
These include: the tunnel dug from the west under East Berlin to monitor communications in Communist East Germany; the intelligence war waged under the ice of the Arctic Circle, in which British submarines got to within six feet of their Russian opposite numbers; and how signals intelligence (‘Sigint’) enabled the West to win some of the proxy wars when the Cold War got hot – such as the confrontation between Britain and Indonesia over Malaysia in the early 1960s, in which for the first time GCHQ communicated vital information about the enemy directly to SAS soldiers in the jungle.
There is also astonishing detail about how three British moles working for the Russians managed to penetrate GCHQ before being exposed; how GCHQ’s sophistication outwitted the IRA in Northern Ireland by defusing radio-controlled bombs; and the controversy over what was and was not known prior to the Omagh bombing of 1998 – Northern Ireland’s worst-ever terrorist atrocity.
Although intelligence co-operation between Britain and the US has remained close since Churchill let the Americans into the Enigma secret in WW2 – and was notably useful during the 1982 Falklands War – even allies and friends cannot always be trusted. Aldrich reveals how American Intelligence tried to bug British generals during the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s – and how GCHQ apparently foiled such surveillance.
Moving into the agency’s current activities, Aldrich is understandably more circumspect. He does, however, indicate in broad terms how GCHQ plays a crucial role in monitoring terrorist communications – or ‘traffic’ – both in cyberspace, on radio, here at home, and in the wilds of Afghanistan and Waziristan. Here, the West’s crucial technological advantage over the terrorists’ cruder gadgetry gives it a real edge in the long ‘war against terror’.
Finally, Aldrich considers what many regard as the darker side of GCHQ: Government snooping on their own citizens in the form of monitoring of private email and phone traffic, including the ongoing plans for a vast database of all such communications. Here, although factual rather than moralistic, he does make the future look very Orwellian. Still, if plans for ECHELON – as the surveillance project is known – do come to pass, concerned citizens have the cold comfort of knowing that if it is anything like as efficient as previous Government computer cock-ups, then we have little to fear. In the end even the best ‘Sigint’ is always dependent on ‘Humint’ (human intelligence). And ‘Humint’ is very fallible.
Review by Nigel Jones, historian, biographer, and journalist
HarperCollins £30
ISBN 978-0007278473