Behind the Enigma The Authorised History of GCHQ Britain’s Secret Cyber-Intelligence Agency.

The papers have had their run ins with the security services over the years, a few of those spats feature in this comprehensive official history of GCHQ. There was the ludicrous incident in 2013 when the then PM, David Cameron, ordered the Cabinet Secretary to threaten the Guardian newspaper with an injunction over its reporting of NSA/GCHQ leaks by Edward Snowden. Two Guardian computers were destroyed with an angle grinder in the basement of their building in front of two GCHQ officials, there to ensure that the information on them was thoroughly destroyed. This despite Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian editor, pointing out that the material was stored elsewhere in the world in any case. A political, symbolic, action rather than intelligence services led one.

1982. Then there was the Clive Ponting leak to a member of parliament about the sinking of the ARA General Belgrano. The Belgrano was sailing away from the 200 mile British exclusion zone when it was hit by a torpedo from British submarine, Conqueror. The cruiser went down with the loss of 323 lives. The Argentinian navy, still believing British submarines to be in the area, did not send ships to rescue the crew of the sinking vessel. At the time the ship was deemed by many not to have been a direct threat to the British forces but the Belgrano was sunk on Margaret Thatcher’s orders. Ponting was tried under the Official Secrets Act (1911) and acquitted in contravention of the judge’s direction, who described it as a perverse verdict, it was assumed by the jury that Ponting had acted in the public interest. After which Ponting’s wrote a book which was serialised in the Observer while the government sought to alter the law so that public interest was no longer a defence under the Official Secrets Act, (OSA, 1989). Time has proven the attempt to tighten the OSA was futile, holding back the tide, because, ultimately it was contrary to public opinion. Ferris doesn’t deal in the controversy directly, his account is taken from the records, he tells us that British signal intelligence, (sigint), picked up transmissions of Argentinian battle orders and were able to discern that an attack was being prepared, and therefore armed with this information the: ‘the sinking of the Belgrano was absolutely justified.’ This doesn’t go into the political motives of Thatcher, many believing it was a cruel show of strength. The question of whether a war could have been prevented in the first place is also addressed. GCHQ monitored the first calls by the Argentinian junta for the return of the Malvinas in 1976-77. Despite the rhetoric it came to nothing and local GCHQ resources were withdrawn. The Joint Intelligence Committee, (JIC), listed the Falklands as a level four risk, lowest priority. Many, including senior military figures described the subsequent invasion as an intelligence failure. Ferris is unequivocal in disputing this:

‘They were wrong. This was a failure of policy: neither to make the Falkland Islands population join Argentina, nor to deploy a permanent garrison able to deter attack and enable help to arrive. Neither approaches was palatable before the invasion. Instead, Britain adopted a magical policy which assumed perfection both in operations and intelligence – the ability always to predict Argentine intensions in time to deploy a deterrent from the North Atlantic.’

Once the war had started HMS Endurance, a polar exploration vessel with a sigint intercept capability, fed vital information home. Ferris is clear crucial intercepts massively contributed to Britain winning the Falklands war.

There’s a fine line between myth about GCHQ that it can spy on anybody, anywhere at any time and the truth which is that the internet age makes mass surveillance of that kind so much more possible. Many are against the bulk collection of data but nothing works unless it is refined, having access to every email doesn’t mean you can read every email. There have been times in the history of GCHQ where the ability of the organisation to spy was not talked about, times, like WWII, when it was simply assumed to be a good thing. More than ever in the internet age moral questions of surveillance are raised. GCHQ has had to open up, become a more responsive organisation to public opinion.

Ferris had unique access to GCHQ in Cheltenham, the building known as the doughnut and it’s records. Of course there were exceptions; no post 1945 diplomatic traffic, nothing revealing of current undisclosed methods and no official documents after the end of the Cold War, these were the main prohibitions. That said Ferris had tremendous scope to view material and has completed a herculean task in sifting the stuff that gets to the heart of what GCHQ does. From a research point of view this is a staggeringly comprehensive history. This history forms a kind of triptych with the other official guides to the secret service; The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew and MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 by Keith Jeffery. We see the joined up picture, the coordination, or lack of, the value of GCHQ intercepting, interpreting and disrupting intelligence. Ferris makes the point that having the information does not mean correctly interpreting it. In the run up to WWII there were signs of belligerence in German, Italian, and Japanese signals that weren’t picked up on, or were misread. Ferris also provides a picture of the cooperation between the NSA, the only comparable agency, and GCHQ, and the wider intelligence network, (Australia, EU, NZ, Canada etc).

Recognition of the role of GCHQ was still sketchy when the government went to war with the unions in 1984, justified in the House by Geoffrey Howe:

“Any significant interruption in the flow of intelligence from GCHQ could, in circumstances which can never be foreseen, deprive the Government of the day of information which could be vital to our national security. Therefore, it is crucial that GCHQ’s operations and activities should be maintained without any disruption or interference whatsoever.”

This is Ferris’s take:

‘Externally, in terms of perception, the ban harmed GCHQ. It was hard to justify even to those who knew the story. The government’s unwillingness to discuss the damage to intelligence operations caused by union action damaged that case.’

This is a scholarly work, it’s also accessible to the interested non-academic reader, it’s in fact  a book that should be read by anyone with an interest in the secret service and their role in Britain’s history. At times the account is a little dry, not the author’s fault, for the key part of GCHQ, in its various guises, has lived in the shadows but most of what they do is mundane. It’s essential to discuss computerisation for instance but not necessarily sexy. Whereas a writer like Ben McIntyre can pick a juicy story and infuse it with spice Ferris has a bigger job to do and it wouldn’t be appropriate. Caveat emptor delivered there is nowhere readers are going to get the same comprehensive view of GCHQ. I don’t think it’s a surprise that it has an establishment feel to the narrative but, and I want to be clear, I’m not suggesting any bias or manipulation of evidence/facts.

In broad sweeping terms we learn that good sigint has been useful in many arenas over the years, that much of GCHQ activities during the Cold War were unglamorous but crucial. 101 years of protecting the nation’s interests; from foreign enemies, non-state actors, and, much more controversially, British citizens. The focus has changed from the Cold War to terrorism, rogue and belligerent states and hackers and has had to deal with the changing public view of secrecy.

It all began with the Royal Navy and British Army merging their coding and codebreaking operations, after a lack of joined up thinking led to failures, including many deaths at the Somme in 1915 in one incident. Churchill had set up Room 40, (Navy), which merged with Army MIi(b) in 1919 to form the Government Code and Cypher School. One of the areas picked up by the press about Ferris’s book is his analysis of Bletchley Park’s contribution to the war. Actually this is not so controversial, Ferris is simply saying that enigma helped defeat the Germans it did not save Britain. Ingenious as it was, important as it was, the British have an inflated view of the role of Bletchley. Pleasingly Ferris takes a look at the role of women in communications intelligence, (comint), Bletchley and the doughnut, and touches on issues of diversity and sexuality.

Ferris is a thorough historian, this comprehensive book is an in-depth analysis of the working, the thinking behind, one hundred years of GCHQ. How you interpret what you read is up to you. Essential for spy readers.

Bloomsbury, hardback, 9781526605467, Out now.

Reviewed by Paul Burke
Personal Read 4*
Not a group read.