Inside GCHQ

GCHQ: the story so far

Image credit: GCHQ

As the first ever authorised history of Britain’s secretive cyber-intelligence agency GCHQ hits the bookshops, we talk to its author John Ferris.

It’s tempting to slip into journalistic clichés about signals intelligence (or ‘Sigint’) being a ‘shadowy world shrouded in cloak-and-dagger intrigue’. And it’s, no doubt, attractive to the headline writer to use sensational vocabulary – such as the inevitable ‘lifting the lid’ – to get the reader’s attention. But neither will be the most helpful approach to understanding John Ferris’s balanced account of the century-long history of the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ, the first to be written with the full cooperation of the organisation.

This is because ‘Behind the Enigma’ doesn’t need any hype. It is simply one of those books that has sufficient intellectual rigour and historical ballast to stand unsupported by marketing flimflam. There’s no need for big publisher claims or spy-thriller-style headlines, because a story that genuinely breaks ground needs no spinning. The truth in Ferris’s book, now that we know nearly all of it (some material remains classified), is more interesting than fiction could ever be. What propels the reader through the 800-plus pages of Ferris’s monumental analysis of GCHQ is the continual realisation that much of what he sets before you is previously unknown: “When you get into the post-1945 era, I’m starting to look at material that has been classified until now. I’m the first historian to have seen it. When I talk about the role of Sigint for Britain in the Cold War and the Falklands War, I’m actually the first person to have seen the evidence, to integrate it with other records on British policy, and say this is why it mattered.”

Ferris has had unique and exclusive access to previously unexamined documents, and with a few restrictions (that he maps out early in the piece), he’s been given free rein to write what he wants. And what he appears to want is to write in a neutral tone that lets the story pack its own punches. It’s an approach he championed a couple of decades ago when he wrote an academic paper in which he contended that intelligence historians should aim to bore their audience as much as to excite them. This might seem an uncharitable assessment of his own position and one that will almost certainly have his publicists hopping with frustration. But, objectively speaking, it’s a matter of fact that, “a lot of what intelligence agencies do is boring” – an epithet, incidentally, that can’t be applied to Ferris’s book.

In writing ‘Behind the Enigma: The Authorised History of GCHQ’ Ferris says that he has spent “a lot of time trying to reconstruct the sociology of GCHQ at various times, because what it is changes. During the Cold War, it is a very militarised organisation. Lots of people are ex-military and have become civilians. All the radio intercept personnel are ex-military, and so you have a very militarised civilian structure.” These days, when you visit GCHQ what strikes the observer is that “GCHQ is more like a university, quite frankly”.

Ferris wonders if there are any civilians out there that have spent as much time observing Siginters (‘signals intelligence professionals’) as he has. His findings are that, “the people who do the analysis could be me as a historian. Those who do the engineering could be you. For what it’s worth, the engineering, science and mathematical side of GCHQ very much reflects British academe, although on the crypto-mathematics side a very narrow body of places can provide personnel: Oxbridge is still dominant.”

We read it for you

‘Behind the Enigma: The Authorised History of GCHQ’

The first book to investigate the complete history of any signals intelligence agency, John Ferris’s ‘Behind the Enigma’ is the authorised account of the history of the UK’s cyber-intelligence agency GCHQ. Tracing its development from its origins more than a century ago to the organisation it is today, Ferris examines how GCHQ has transformed from being an impenetrable fortress of total secrecy to its current position of transparency that recognises the notion that the hyper-connected world we live in today is one in which every citizen is participating in communications intelligence. From the failures of signal security in the First World War to the full impact of GCHQ in the Falklands War, ‘Behind the Enigma’ is a monumental work of exhaustive scholarship. Spanning more than 800 riveting pages, it is a defining contribution to the history of signals intelligence.

For most of us, it will be the history of Sigint that is the main attraction. While Ferris takes us back into the 19th century, it is after the First World War – in which ‘traffic analysis’, one of the main branches of Sigint, “is probably invented by the British in about 1915” – Sigint becomes a “normal part of what Britain and every other major power does. Because it is important. But it is also unknown, and my book focuses on this. How do you actually do Sigint? Who does it? And so, I spent a lot of time looking at these questions: the role of women in Sigint, the relationship between GCHQ and society, and so on.”

‘Behind the Enigma’ is also revealing, not just in the technology, its applications and implications of Sigint, but also its role in the wider context of globally significant historical events. Ferris takes us into the world of the cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park that housed the government Code and Cypher School, or GC&CS, as GCHQ was known until 1946. He investigates how failures in British signals security led to the German interception of British military field telephone messages at the Battle of the Somme during the First World War, contributing to tens of thousands of deaths. The reader will discover how Soviet deep-penetration agent Kim Philby attempted to weaken Britain in its struggle to control Palestine during 1946 by disseminating false reports that Jewish terrorists were planning to bomb British headquarters. We are given insights into the full impact of the Falklands War, in which Sigint guided British strategy and diplomacy, enabling the government to secure victory at sea. Without GCHQ, says Ferris, Britain would probably have lost the Falklands and the war.

With the end of the Cold War the role of Sigint started to change. Up until 1992, Ferris explains, Sigint was something that one state did to another. The date is important because this was when GCHQ reinvented itself to focus on post-Cold War concerns. While other British defence and security agencies were reduced, GCHQ was repurposed to respond to a landscape dominated by digital and cyber. With the digitalisation of society, “in which we’ve increasingly come to live as individuals in a world of communications intelligence”, Sigint has assumed a peacetime significance in countering the threat of the non-state terrorist attack, leading GCHQ to develop new practices for safeguarding the British public.

There are, according to Ferris, probably millions of entities – most of them non-state or criminal – which can conduct some kind of Sigint. “Foreign governments are interested in our communications and can access them, just as our governments can access their information. And so suddenly, in effect since 1992 we’ve been in what I call the second age of Sigint, which is one in which we are active participants even if we don’t know it.” This, concludes Ferris, is one of the “biggest developments of the past century. One that’s linked to the rise of the computer, the internet and to the world we live in as civilians.”

‘Behind the Enigma: The Authorised History of GCHQ’ by John Ferris is from Bloomsbury, £30


Computing developments

Seen as a snapshot, Sigint looks like a thing, but really it is a process with many moving parts. Change characterises Sigint, but revolutions are rare.

The years between 1939 and 1992 were the heart of the first age of Sigint. Until 1992, computers essentially supported cryptanalysis, rather than transformed organisation. Computing power rose steadily, as did collection by and against satellites, through automated systems. The roomfuls of data-processing machines employed to shatter Enigma vanished, but other systems rose to tackle different targets.

Otherwise, until 1992, GCHQ essentially used variants of the equipment, approach and structure which had characterised British Sigint in 1945. Teams of operators still intercepted voice and HF and VHF Morse. Data processing still rested on card indexes and punchcards, and on teams working in typing pools and communication centres. GCHQ was a machine to produce information, driven by a flow of paper instead of steam.

Overwhelmingly, its personnel worked in labour-intensive tasks of interception, involving some skilled craftwork and data processing, and always the pristine copying, recopying and movement of paper. The system was agile, but obese from the perspective of digitisation. The fat melted away only in the white heat of the second age of Sigint, which stemmed from decades of technological and organisational innovation.

After 1975, remarkable changes in Sigint signalled the transition towards the beginning of the second age. The technology for collection and computing changed exponentially, while analytical practices began to transform.

Edited extract from ‘Behind the Enigma: The Authorised History of GCHQ’ by John Ferris, reproduced with permission.

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