Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Book Review

The key to global British power
GCHQ: The uncensored story of Britain's most secret intelligence agency by Richard J Aldrich

Reviewed by Mahan Abedin

“GCHQ provides intelligence, protects information and informs relevant UK policy to keep our society safe and successful in the Internet Age“, so reads the headline message on the Government Communication Headquarters website. This is a classic example of British understatement, effortlessly disguising what is in fact the most strategic asset in British foreign policy formulation and implementation.

If there is one single organization that explains the longevity of the United Kingdom's global reach in the post-colonial period, then it is surely the GCHQ, a massive worldwide eavesdropping enterprise, which obtains over 80% of the United Kingdom's intelligence and provides critical support to both the domestic Security Service (MI5) and the foreign Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), as well as the British armed forces.

Founded more than 90 years ago, the GCHQ specializes in the art of secret listening, and after America's National Security Agency (NSA), it is the most prolific signals intelligence (sigint) agency in the world.

It is against this backdrop of global dominance and strategic indispensability that Richard J Aldrich's GCHQ: The uncensored story of Britain's most secret intelligence agency, immediately attracts elevated significance. A scrupulous researcher, Aldrich's main achievement has been to construct an independent and non-official history of the GCHQ.

Indeed, unlike many other academics and journalists who write about intelligence history - in particular Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew - Aldrich does not appear to be tied to the British secret state. This independence from British intelligence enables Aldrich to put the GCHQ's successes and failures into perspective. However, Aldrich fails to draw the correct strategic lessons from the totality of his findings and that is the biggest flaw of his book.

A global spying network
The GCHQ's origins date to November 1, 1919, with the founding of the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS). Over the next two decades, the GCCS gradually came to be known as the GCHQ and from 1946 onwards the latter name was invoked more or less exclusively.

The GCHQ's mission is to collect signals intelligence, which can incorporate a wide range of communications and accompanying specialist tasks, including communication intelligence (comint), electronic intelligence (elint) and many other "ints". But in essence, sigint is the unauthorized interception of communications sent by wireless, satellite or electronic means. The GCHQ's core expertise is cryptography, namely the breaking of codes and ciphers and in turn the innovation of new and stronger cryptographic techniques and systems.

The GCHQ's main task is to attack the encryption systems of other countries, entities and individuals. Additionally, the eavesdropping agency is a provider of protective security to British government departments, helping them to encrypt and otherwise protect their most sensitive documents and data.

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