GCHQ Revealed Inside Her Majesty's Listening Service


Part 2: 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-American Rivalry

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.

The Whistleblower

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.

'Oh, Katharine'

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


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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wildberry 02/27/2014
1. optional
Never mind this 'old hat' Snowden rubbish; why have we had no copy of the devastating Spiegel article on the catastrophic state of the German energy situation – and especially of the Green's self-destruction?
peskyvera 02/27/2014
2. optional
As someone mentioned some time ago: it is the US/UK axis that needs watching. Give the UK/US two options: either dismount all spying equipment or leave.
pettefar 02/27/2014
3. Sigh
How much better it would have been if you could have done at least ten seconds research into the work Alan Turning did at Bletchley Park and who was responsible for the Enigma code breakthroughs. Was this too much for you?
williger30 02/27/2014
4. Go it alone
some spying is necessary, but today it's got out of hand, especially by the States. It's time to pull Europe together to formulate out own system, shutting out those who we don't trust.
GKP 02/27/2014
5. Gchq
What a pity it had to be my country that decided to spy on the world. I had wondered how we were so wealthy from doing so little... Now I know.
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