There have been a few passages from Richard Aldrich’s GCHQ: The Uncensored Story Of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency that have struck me as especially worthy of discussion, so far.
Spying as a stabilizer
Discussing the 1960s, Aldrich argues that improved intelligence from signals intelligence (SIGINT) and satellite sources “made the international system more stable” and “contributed to a collective calming of nerves”:
Indeed, during the 1960s the penetration of the NATO registries by Eastern Bloc spies was so complete that the Warsaw Pact had no choice but to conclude that the intentions of Western countries were genuinely defensive and benign.
Previously, we discussed some of the major problems with spies. In this book, Aldrich brings up a partial counterpoint. Countries tend to consider secretly intercepted communications to be a highly credible source of information. If a country tells you it is planning to do Thing X for Reason Y, there are all sorts of reasons why they could be deceiving you. If you secretly overhear the same plan within their internal discussions, you have more reason to think that it will go forward and that the reasons behind it are genuine.
Revolutionaries and symbolic violence
Discussing the actions of the Turkish Peopleâ€™s Liberation Army (TPLA) and Turkish Peopleâ€™s Liberation Front (TPLF) during the 1970s, Aldrich says:
Both consisted of middle-class intellectuals who regarded themselves as a revolutionary vanguard. Like many revolutionary leaders, they suffered from a â€˜Che Guevara complexâ€™, believing that symbolic acts of violence could trigger a wider social revolution. Che Guevara had come to grief in 1967 during a futile attempt to stir the revolutionary consciousness of Bolivia, and was captured and shot by a police team, advised by the CIA. Turkeyâ€™s would-be revolutionaries would soon suffer a similar fate.
The TPLA and TPLF figure into Aldrich’s story because of their targeting of intelligence facilities: initially accidentally, and later intentionally.
How far ahead are the spooks?
The codebreaking success of the Allies against the Germans and Japanese during the second world war was kept secret until the 1970s. Most of the documents about codebreaking being declassified now extend up to the 1970s. Because of such secrecy, it is impossible to know what technologies and capabilities organizations like America’s NSA, Britainâ€™s CGHQ, and Canadaâ€™s CSE have today.
Describing the early 1970s, Aldrich explains how the microwave relays used by the telephone system beam signals into space accidentally, because of the curvature of the Earth. Forty years ago, the United States was already using satellites to intercept that spillover. Furthermore, they were already using computers to scan for keywords in phone, fax, and telex messages.
As early as 1969, the British and Americans had a system in place somewhat akin to what Google Alerts do today: tell it what keywords you are interested in, and it can pull related content out from the torrent of daily traffic. You can’t help but wonder what they are able to do now: whether the increased volume of communication has overwhelmed their capability to do such filtering effectively, or whether advances in secret techniques and technologies mean that they have even more potent methods for intercepting and processing the world’s commercial, diplomatic, and interpersonal communication.
Penetrating the secrecy
Aldrich also describes the investigative journalism of people like Duncan Campbell and James Bamford – people who used open sources to reveal the true function of GCHQ for the first time. Aldrich claims that their actions “confirmed a fundamental truth: that there are no secrets, only lazy researchers”.
Some recent journalistic undertakings – such as the excellent ‘Top Secret America’ – do lend credence to that view.