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 People’s Liberation Army (TPLA) and Turkish People’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 ‘Che Guevara complex’, 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. Turkey’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, Britain’s CGHQ, and Canada’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.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

. November 8, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Intelligence within BAOR and NATO’s Northern Army Group
Richard J. Aldrich

Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, UK
Online Publication Date: 01 February 2008

ABSTRACT During the Cold War the UK’s principal military role was its commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) through the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), together with wartime command of NATO’s Northern Army Group. The possibility of a surprise attack by the numerically superior Warsaw Pact forces ensured that great importance was attached to intelligence, warning and rapid mobilisation. As yet we know very little about the intelligence dimension of BAOR and its interface with NATO allies. This article attempts to address these neglected issues, ending with the impact of the 1973 Yom Kippur War upon NATO thinking about warning and surprise in the mid-1970s. It concludes that the arrangements made by Whitehall for support to BAOR from national assets during crisis or transition to war were – at best – improbable. Accordingly, over the years, BAOR developed its own unique assets
in the realm of both intelligence collection

. November 8, 2010 at 2:53 pm

“Did intelligence help to stabilise the situation in Western Europe, or was it a potential source of provocation? On the one hand, we might argue that both NATO intelligence on the East – and also Warsaw Pact intelligence regarding NATO – contributed to some improvement in relations. Complex warning indicators at least gave each side the hope of 48 hours notice of attack. Some Eastern bloc espionage against NATO headquarters also had the effect of calming nerves. During the 1960s, East German penetration of the NATO registries was so complete that the Warsaw Pact seems to have been largely convinced that the intentions of West European countries were genuinely defensive and benign. Yet these assessments were offered as probabilities, rather than certainties, since no amount of intelligence ever provided complete confirmation.”

R.K. November 8, 2010 at 5:28 pm

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.

Good question. I would guess that processing and filtering technologies have been able to scale up quickly enough to make these agencies at least as capable now as they were in the 1970s.

Tristan November 8, 2010 at 8:58 pm

“Violence from the weak almost certainly won’t help”

You’ve used the above post as evidence for this claim. It’s not all clear how a single example of ineffective use of violence by the weak supports a general claim that violence from the weak “won’t help”. General claims require serious analysis of the political history of different situations, ideally ones where violence was effective and ones where it was not – and an attempt to discover the relevant differences in the context and in how the violence was carried out.

Milan November 9, 2010 at 12:12 am

It’s not all clear how a single example of ineffective use of violence by the weak supports a general claim that violence from the weak “won’t help”.

True enough. That said, I do think there is a tendency among at least some of those who use violence to engage in wishful thinking, when it comes to what sort of response violent actions are likely to produce in the general public. I think it is rarely a response in keeping with what the violent initiators would want.

. November 20, 2010 at 3:00 pm

“The number of criminals encrypting their emails and computer files proved to be fairly small. In fact, for a decade both NSA and GCHQ had been barking up the wrong tree in terms of their obsession with the dangers of Public Key Encryption. This was a small problem, compared with the sheer explosion of open communications, especially those based around the internet… Both NSA and GCHQ were simply overwhelmed by a tidal wave of data, despite the fact that almost none of it was in code. One insider recounted that NSA had created a special facility with three years’ worth of storage capacity for intercepted internet traffic. “They filled it in eleven months”.”

Aldrich, Richard. GCHQ: The Uncensored Story Of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency. p.508 (harcover)

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