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GCHQ - a new authorised history

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On 3 March 2017, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s signals intelligence agency, announced an authorised history, written by noted signals intelligence historian John Ferris, to be published in 2019 to tie in with the organisation’s centenary. This means that GCHQ will now stand alongside its fellow agencies, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and the Security Service (as well as other parts of the intelligence community such as the Joint Intelligence Committee), in sponsoring an authorised account of its activities.

In contrast to the publicity that surrounded similar announcements in relation to SIS and the Security Service, both of which resulted in considerable press coverage, the GCHQ announcement was made without fanfare, following a #AskGCHQ Twitter Q&A session with GCHQ’s own internal historian, Tony Comer. At the time of writing, the announcement does not appear to have caught the attention of the national press. This is somewhat surprising, particularly given the aforementioned coverage of the authorised histories of MI5 and SIS, and the media attention which followed the release in June 2010 of GCHQ file material detailing the BRUSA (later UKUSA) agreement, which cemented post-war transatlantic signals intelligence cooperation – an agreement widely known about, but officially denied by government.

News of this history is to be welcomed, and reflects an increasing tendency towards openness on the part of GCHQ, long the most secret of the British secret services. There is a well-worn cliché that considers intelligence the ‘missing dimension’ of British history. In the case of GCHQ, and signals intelligence, the description remains apt; beyond the role of Bletchley Park and the breaking of Germany’s Enigma machine during the Second World War, the history of British codebreaking has remained remarkably opaque in terms of official material allowed into the public domain at Kew, and consequently is absent from many diplomatic and political histories of the twentieth century outside of the 1939-1945 period. The author, John Ferris, is a highly regarded expert on signals intelligence and has published widely on the subject. A longstanding ‘outsider’, it is highly unlikely that Ferris will face claims of being a ‘court historian’ like those which faced Professor Christopher Andrew upon his announcement as MI5’s authorised historian.

So why now? Signals intelligence has received a considerable degree of bad press over the last few years, in light of the eavesdropping revelations made by US whistle-blower Edward Snowden. GCHQ’s increasingly public profile, which has included the release of a puzzle book, student internships, and the launch of an official Twitter account (a move not currently matched by either the Security Service or SIS), can be considered part of a ‘charm offensive’ to recover the reputation of branch of intelligence work that has recently suffered some considerable reputational damage. Alternatively, it could be that GCHQ feels the need to ‘catch up’ with its fellow siblings, MI5 and SIS, who have proved that it is possible to publish an official history without compromising national security.

What will the history be able to tell us? Here, GCHQ perhaps faces a greater challenge than either MI5 or SIS. Tony Comer’s announcement has already gone some way toward dampening down expectations in this regard, by warning us that John Ferris will not have access to the entirety of GCHQ’s ‘chamber of secrets’. Despite ever changing technology, certain techniques – tradecraft, as it is known in the intelligence community – in relation to signals intelligence alter little over time. It is highly unlikely that an official account of GCHQ will reveal any methods that may still be used today. Equally, the prospect of admitting to intercepting other countries’ messages, both friend and foe alike, has the potential to cause considerable political embarrassment, if not an all-out diplomatic storm, especially as Britain tries to find her way in a post-Brexit world.

Given the controversy that surrounds the role of signals intelligence in British politics, can a book spanning the First World War, Bletchley Park, the Cold War and up to the present day, deal in sufficient depth with such issues? There are many sensitive episodes in the organisation’s history that need to be navigated, including for example the leaking of intercepts in the early 1920s in order to damage government policy, the ZIRCON affair of the mid-1980s, Katharine Gunn’s claims of spying on the UN to Snowden, and the resulting destruction of computer hard drives at the offices of The Guardian.

With the authorised history due to be published in 2019, John Ferris is clearly up against the clock. In addition to researching and writing the history, the completed draft will likely need to be approved by numerous Whitehall departments – the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Ministry of Defence and Cabinet Office to name a few – before publication can take place. This is an area that proved challenging for Professor Christopher Andrew, who was required to made ‘one significant excision’ from his authorised history of MI5 on the insistence of a government department. Britain’s first official history of a secret organisation, SOE in France, faced similar issues; while 11 alterations were suggested by SIS for reasons of operational security, the Foreign Office swiftly came back with a list of over 50, largely concerned with criticisms of de Gaulle at a time when Britain was considering a second application to join the EEC.

Any new information about signals intelligence is to be welcomed. While the need for certain information to remain classified for reasons of continued national security is inevitable, it is to be hoped that as much information about twentieth century signals intelligence as possible is made available, irrespective of the potential for national embarrassment. 

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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