Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Richard J Aldrich’

GCHQ

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 26th July, 2019

GCHQ. AldrichOn 1 November the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) will be celebrating its centenary. The very fact that it is acknowledging this landmark is a reflection of how things have changed. Much of GCHQ’s work may still be top secret, but in an era of greater transparency, it doesn’t need to pretend it doesn’t exist. Moreover, the distinctive “doughnut” building in Cheltenham that houses most its UK-based staff has become iconic, even if it does not allow in visitors, unlike its US equivalent. Though the doughnut cost a small fortune, it has proved to be too small, thanks to the recent proliferation of hostile actors and threatening activities, from Islamist terrorists to drug cartels and cyber warriors. A cogent exposition of these is one of the most valuable parts of Richard J Aldrich’s updated unofficial history of the organisation, GCHQ (William Collins, £12.99), issued in time for the centenary. In nearly 600 pages, Aldrich (Professor of International Security at Warwick University) provides not just a chronological account of GCHQ’s development and its sometimes fractious relationship with counterparts both in Europe and beyond but also an overview of how dramatically the post-modern world has changed, thanks to technology, not least computers and satellites.

GCHQ doughnutThis would have been unimaginable to most of the people — mainly in the armed forces — who decided after the First World War that it would be useful if Britain had its own unit to develop codes and cyphers as well as to crack those of the enemy. Though the work started relatively modestly, the onset of the Second World War changed all that and Bletchley Park (a mansion astonishingly purchased privately by the man who was determined to see it up and running) became the ultra-secret hub of “sigint” work, home to Alan Turing and other pioneers in the field as well as linguists and code-breakers whose contribution to the war effort was duly acknowledged by Winston Churchill. Peace brought no real let-up to the activity, as the Soviet Union had become the new focus of prime attention and GCHQ became a key partner in Britain’s intelligence community, with outposts in Cyprus and elsewhere.

Subsequently, GCHQ’s reach has gone truly global as well as monitoring groups and persons of interest within the United Kingdom itself. That aspect of surveillance has caused concern among civil libertarians and at times GCHQ’s activities have themselves come under sharp scrutiny from campaigning journalists such as Duncan Campbell. In an age of metadata we are all under various kinds of scrutiny, not just from governments but from giant tech companies as well. This situation raises all sorts of moral questions about the right balance between national security and individual freedoms, and Richard J Aldrich does not shy away from these. But one great value of this book is his fairly dispassionate approach to the subject of GCHQ; he is neither its champion nor its critic, but based on an immense amount of research he has produced a gripping account that leaves one with much food for thought. GCHQ has commissioned its own, official history to mark its centenary, but I doubt whether even in the age of transparency that could be as richly informative as this unofficial one.

Posted in book review, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »