Lead book review

Behind the veil of secrecy: GCHQ emerges from the shadows

The brilliance of GCHQ can now be recognised – and about time too, says Sinclair McKay

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

Behind the Enigma: The Authorised History of GCHQ, Britain’s Secret Cyber-Intelligence Agency John Ferris

Bloomsbury, pp.804, 30

Is it ever possible to truly see inside the heart of another? To divine hidden intentions and the darkest of thoughts? For a long time — before we all became sourly aware of our own computers spying on us like HAL 9000, and flashing ads for haemorrhoid ointments — this godlike omniscience was ascribed to the secret listeners at GCHQ. Above all other intelligence agencies it held a special place in the imaginations of urban paranoiacs. The organisation itself nurtured this sinister reputation by its insistence upon remaining deep in the shadows, even as its siblings MI5 and MI6 boldly came out. Not all that many years ago, simply publishing the initials GCHQ could invite grief.

Yet this intense secrecy, even the denial of its own existence, also obscured the organisation’s many flashing moments of brilliance. For decades nobody was allowed to know that this was an institute that had helped to shorten the second world war, saving uncountable lives; had led directly to the development of the computer; had formed an extraordinary, world-leading and (to this day) enduringly equal intelligence partnership with the US; and whose sometimes eccentric operatives had achieved wild mathematical feats that had never before been imagined.

The modesty has now been fully cast aside: this is the first officially authorised history of Government Communications Headquarters. The author is an academic specialist in the field. The weight of expectation — after 100-odd years of implacable silence — is obviously immense. Although the archives in that modern Cheltenham doughnut HQ are apparently not as complete as one would imagine (oh, indeed?), the story of the codebreakers is in fact a parallel history of the entire 20th century.

As a result, there is possibly slightly too much to get through in one volume. We are guided through Victorians shuddering over the ethics of prying into private correspondence, those ethics being thoroughly binned by the first world war; the radio revolution and a new age of analysing global signals traffic; the establishment of a ‘Government Code and Cypher School’ with classicists and linguists; the coming of ‘unbreakable’ electrical cypher machines such as Enigma; the second world war, worldwide listening stations and the intense intelligence emergency that faced the nation; then the illimitable shifting insecurities of the Cold War and beyond.


Even if the codebreakers were ahead of other departments when it came to the preparation for the conflict with Hitler (Bletchley Park was acquired in 1938, and Alan Turing soon after), the organisation had yet to make the vital shift it needed to become a vast cryptological factory. When it did so, mid-war, under young thunderbolts such as Gordon Welchman, it became a world beater. They were reading messages from Hitler’s desk. For a time, no one else on earth — not even the Americans — could match what was being achieved in that drab Buckinghamshire town.

But even as the war ended, the codebreakers were alert to the wider conflicts to come. Their work not only focused on the Soviet Union but on all areas where the decline of empire and the rise of new powers created nerve-gnawing tension. This was now an age in which thousands of nuclear warheads — in silos; on submarines — were primed. An agency that could see clearly into the hearts of others was more needed than ever.

But as mentioned, there is perhaps a shade too much material for that razor-edged urgency to be conveyed fully; plenty here for fans of departmental acronyms but lacking the saltier geopolitical overview of an earlier, unauthorised (and more naughtily compelling) GCHQ chronicler, Richard Aldrich. Also there are striking omissions, and moments when we are practically grabbed by the collars and dragged away from fascinating stories; the 1982 revelation that GCHQ operative Geoffrey Prime was a Soviet double agent is here dealt with in one paragraph.

While there is intriguing detailing of the organisation’s structure and systems — at the core of GCHQ’s effort to impose some order on the terrifying Babel of intelligence from hostile powers — and a strong focus on certain key events such as the creation of the state of Israel, a wider sense of historical tectonic plates is sometimes lacking. And occasionally so too is the human factor, although there are some glorious gobbets (J.R.R. Tolkien being turned down for Bletchley Park; Anthony Eden keeping his own GCHQ spooks in the dark about his intentions involving Suez, among other examples).

One illuminating recurring theme is that the cryptanalysts could never be fortune- tellers; enemy intentions were frequently opaque; that what GCHQ did best was react swiftly to global crises, often unilaterally lowering the international temperature with ingeniously gathered intelligence (including during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis). GCHQ was also invaluable for military commanders when those wars did erupt; the chapter dealing with the Falklands War is very absorbing. It is also fascinating to read of Margaret Thatcher’s affinity with the agency. She was the first PM (other than Churchill in wartime) to visit the codebreaking HQ. This is telling on another level: an illustration of the agency’s then extraordinary distance from the ordinary machinery of government.

Of late, GCHQ has basked in the reflected rosy glow of public affection for the story of Bletchley Park (a secret it guarded zealously until the 1980s). Yet Professor Ferris is anxious to dispel ‘myths’ — which, as he sees it, are stories about ‘dons and debs dancing on the lawn’, and which he thinks detract from the Park’s serious impact. Yet it equally seems a shame to minimise the frequently dotty humanity of dazzling cryptographers. Those debs did dance, dons fell into lakes, and thousands of young recruits were ushered into positions from which they could understand the hidden tides of history. Their spiritual descendants are in Cheltenham today.

Indeed, for some years, the Cheltenham spooks were apparently allowed to take their dogs into work. In the foreword to this book, the current GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming announces that the agency is now more ‘citizen-facing’. Once I had wiped the sick from the page, it occurred to me that they could win the nation’s unconditional love with another rather more vulgar volume: The Codebreaking Good Doggies of GCHQ.

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