GCHQ: Any phone, any time

Enjoying lenient surveillance laws, GCHQ has enticed its American counterpart to set up camp in Britain. Richard Norton-Taylor reports

November 16, 2013
4 min read

Dennis Mitchell was a senior official at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) based in Cheltenham. He resigned in protest against the trade union ban imposed by the Thatcher government in 1984 at the electronic eavesdropping base, which is now the centre of a storm over huge surveillance operations by Britain and the US.

In a remarkably prescient comment, he described the agency as a powerful, unaccountable arm of government whose only watchdog was the workforce. ‘It is they on whom the general public must rely if errors of judgment, excessive zeal or malpractices are to be averted,’ he said. GCHQ staff, he added, had ‘considerable discretion . . .’

Mitchell described GCHQ as ‘an industrial complex . . . Its produce is intelligence. Intelligence imparts power: power which may be used to withstand a threat – or to apply one; to avert an ill, to bestow a benefit – or to exploit.’ He continued: ‘GCHQ staff have a moral responsibility, both corporate and individual, for the use to which that power is put.’

Throughout the debate triggered by revelations by the former US intelligence agency contractor Edward Snowden to the Guardian and Washington Post, ministers and intelligence officials have insisted that whatever GCHQ and its US counterpart, the National Security Agency (NSA), are up to, it is all entirely legal. But such assurances have to be tested against three key facts:

• The law allows government officials enormous discretion;

• Whether the law is upheld or not is entirely a matter for the people who are operating the machines that are intercepting communications; and

• The law cannot, in any event, keep pace with the march of sophisticated intrusive technology.

In the US, the NSA can search without any prior authorisation the emails, internet chats and browsing histories of millions of individuals. In Britain, William Hague, the foreign secretary who is responsible for GCHQ, says the agency rigorously abides by the law. Under the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, he can issue warrants allowing GCHQ to intercept communications.

But the targets do not have to be identified by the warrants. In other words, GCHQ’s lawful authority to eavesdrop is open-ended.

Controls over what the NSA can lawfully do, overseen by compliant secret court hearings, are loose enough. The documents leaked by Snowden reveal that GCHQ has described the UK’s even more relaxed legal constraints, when compared to those in the US, as a ‘selling point’ for the Americans.

This is the core of the ‘special relationship’ – what GCHQ calls a ‘pivotal partnership’. The NSA pays GCHQ to help do its ‘dirty work’, spending some £100 million over the past few years on GCHQ’s bases in Bude, Cornwall and Cyprus. In exchange for financial help and high-level intelligence supplied by the NSA, successive British governments (Labour administrations have proved more compliant than the Tories) have returned the favours.

Britain provides the NSA with Menwith Hill, the American agency’s largest eavesdropping station outside the US. The base on the North Yorkshire moors receives, transmits and intercepts information from satellites. But its position also enables it to plug into the international and domestic telecommunications network passing through Britain.

The relationship between the two agencies is reflected in a 1994 staff manual, which told GCHQ staff that the agency’s contribution must be ‘of sufficient scale and of the right kind to make a continuation of the Sigint [signals intelligence] alliance worthwhile to our partners’.

It admitted: ‘This may entail on occasion the applying of UK resources to the meeting of US requirements.’

As Snowden revealed more and more information about what the NSA and GCHQ were up to, US officials began to qualify their previous assurances. They talked about ‘inadvertent overcollection’, and people who may not have been the ‘intentional targets’. Documents leaked by Snowden showed the NSA claimed to have ‘direct access’ through its Prism programme to the systems of many of the major internet companies. And they revealed that GCHQ’s ambition was to ‘exploit any phone, anywhere, any time’.

A combination of lax legal controls, the ability of computers to pick up and store ever-increasing amounts of information, a deferential approach by most intelligence officials and internet companies, and the absence of effective accountability represent a threat democratic institutions have scarcely begun to meet.

Richard Norton-Taylor writes on defence and security issues for the Guardian. He is joint author, with Hugh Lanning, of A Conflict of Loyalties, GCHQ 1984-1991, New Clarion Press


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry

Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram

Momentum Kids: the parental is political
Momentum Kids is not about indoctrinating children, but rather the more radical idea that children have an important role to play in shaping the future, writes Kristen Hope


1