GCHQ Revealed: Inside Her Majesty's Listening Service

By Christoph Scheuermann

The Snowden files have brought the shocking espionage activities of the UK's Government Communications Headquarters into the open. Former employees describe an agency with shifting goals, a strong honor code -- and an inferiority complex.

On a Monday in January of 2003, Katharine Gun received an email that worried her. Gun, a 28-year-old linguist and analyst with the British intelligence service, was a calm, thoughtful woman. The message, which was classified "top secret" and came from a department head of an American intelligence service, informed a British counterparts that, "as you all probably know by now," a joint eavesdropping operation was being planned against United Nations delegations. Gun couldn't believe her eyes.

At the time, the UN was in the midst of a debate about a possible invasion of Iraq. The fateful appearance of the US Secretary of State Colin Powell before the UN Security Council, in which Powell would attempt to secure allies for an attack on Baghdad, was to take place in five days. Gun, like many of her fellow Britons, was opposed to a war and considered what she should do about the email. By targeting UN diplomats with their espionage, weren't the United States and Great Britain trying to forcibly bring about a war? Were they trying to determine diplomats' feeling about a conflict? Was it legal?

After hesitating for two days, Gun forwarded the email to an acquaintance with contacts in the media. Four weeks later, the email was printed on the cover page of the Observer.

Gun may not have been able to prevent the war, but, in the ensuing scandal, she was able to, for a brief moment, shine on a spotlight on one of the United Kingdom's most secretive agency: GCHQ, or Government Communications Headquarters.

A Ballooning, Secretive Agency

GCHQ's spies, who see themselves as the country's eyes and ears, don't like being the center of attention. It was only through the actions of American whistleblower Edward Snowden that the worldlearned about many of their operations. The documents Snowden leaked, from the innermost circles of the US National Security Agency (NSA), revealed that the British agency has begun monitoring increasingly large portions of global data traffic in recent years -- infiltrating computer networks around the world, launching attacks and extracting information from mobile telephones.

In 2008, GCHQ agents began testing the "Tempora" program, which they hoped would allow them to tap into global data links, especially fiber optic cables. In the four years that followed, the agency's access to data grew by 7,000 percent, according to a PowerPoint presentation described in the British newspaper The Guardian. Today the agency -- which cites "mastering the Internet" as one of its objectives and boasts about extracting more data from the web than the NSA -- employs 6,100 women and men, almost as many as MI5 and MI6, Britain's domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, combined.

While GCHQ refuses to answer questions about its objectives, its former employees paint a picture of an agency that, in decades of existence, has become a modern surveillance monster.

The Paper-Age Spy

It takes a while for Mike Grindley to come to the door. Grindley will be turning 77 this year and is no longer as steady on his feet as he was when he began working at GCHQ. Night is falling outside, one of those wet, cold English evenings. He has had a fire going since noon in his house in Cheltenham, a small city on the edge of the Cotswolds, a two-hour drive northwest of London. The headquarters of GCHQ are a 10-minute drive from Grindley's house. Many of his former coworkers live in the area. GCHQ headquarters on the outskirts of town are like a giant magnet. It isn't easy for former employees to escape its pull.

Grindley's house is full of tall stacks of books, magazines, flyers, notes, letters and newspaper clippings. He doesn't write emails or own a mobile phone, and he can only be reached by calling his landline. Mike Grindley, clearly, is a spy from the paper age.

He joined the agency in August 1961, after serving in the Royal Air Force in Hong Kong and then studying Classical Chinese in Cambridge. A GCHQ headhunter recruited him on campus when he was 24. He was awestruck when he entered the headquarters building in Cheltenham for the first time, but he quickly felt at home in the agency's relaxed and jovial atmosphere. "We used each other's Christian names," says Grindley.

He witnessed the agency's rapid growth as it expanded its monitoring of international communication routes during the Cold War and GCHQ's antennas became the kingdom's ears on the world. In 1967, it was revealed that the agency was intercepting telexes and telegrams sent from the UK to Europe and other countries. As historian and intelligence researcher Richard Aldrich has written, these ended up in GCHQ hands with the help of Western Union, Cable & Wireless and other telephone service providers -- an early example of cooperation between communications companies and the government.

Grindley earned a starting salary of £768 (€935 or $1,280). He excelled at his job, which was to provide information about surveillance targets in China, and he rose through the ranks. When he left in 1988, his annual salary was £19,000. "All the awkward problems landed on my desk," he says. His coworkers called him "Mister China."

'Turing Was Our God'

In Grindley's early years, the agency was so secret that it wasn't even allowed to talk about its greatest triumph. During World War II, employees of the Government Code and Cypher School at the Bletchley Park estate, the precursor organization of GCHQ, intercepted radio messages from Hitler's Wehrmacht.

Hitler's troops used the Enigma coding machine to encrypt their messages, but the British agents at Bletchley Park eventually managed to crack the code using an electromagnetic computing machine, an early form of the computer. The mastermind behind this achievement was Alan Turing, a brilliant computer scientist who, together with his colleagues, worked feverishly in drafty barracks to defeat the Nazis. "Turing was our god," says Grindley. Turing taught the agency that any code could be cracked with the necessary intelligence and technology.

Grindley traveled to secret conferences in the United States and Canada, where he and his counterparts with the NSA and the Canadian intelligence service discussed the latest developments. The world was divided into blocs -- communism was pitted against capitalism, and China was an enemy -- and his work seemed logical and ordered. But then Margaret Thatcher became prime minister.

Like his father, Grindley was a member of the Labour Party and joined a trade union at an early age. Although he was relatively unenthusiastic about strikes, he felt that a union offered advantages when it came to negotiations with employers. Thatcher, however, prohibited GCHQ employees from unionizing. As a result, GCHQ employees publicly revolted against their government in a particularly bizarre episode in British intelligence history.

To the discomfort of Thatcher, the Conservatives and those in the agency who wanted to keep the intelligence service a secret, the employees marched through Cheltenham with signs and banners, cheered on by the town's residents. Grindley, determined not to be intimidated by the Iron Lady, marched at the head of the group.

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1. optional
wildberry 02/27/2014
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?
2. optional
peskyvera 02/27/2014
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.
3. Sigh
pettefar 02/27/2014
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?
4. Go it alone
williger30 02/27/2014
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.
5. Gchq
GKP 02/27/2014
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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