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on 8 October 2010
GCHQ, by Richard J Aldrich

Like most former employees of GCHQ, I did not have much idea of what went on outside my particular section. To satisfy my curiosity I have read all three recently published volumes on this notorious establishment, of which this, as a serious history, is the most weighty. That such a detailed account was needed is undeniable, considering the major contribution to our national survival made by this band of dedicated codebreakers, as we now know them to be, coupled with its reputation as "The last British secret".

Every significant event in its development is charted, from its beginnings in 1919 as the Government Code and Cypher School, through the years of the second world war when a massively expanded team at Bletchley Park cracked the Nazi Enigma code, to modern times when the former business of monitoring foreign states has to a large degree been overtaken by the need to combat terrorism and international crime.

The extent to which information derived by GCHQ has played a part in international happenings will be a revelation to many. It is plain that in the modern world this country still needs effective monitoring, or Sigint as it is known, to protect its interests. However not all will approve the way in which the emphasis is now on recording details of all electronic communications, and of the individual citizens who send and receive them, enabled by astronomical computing power. There are moral questions here, as well as our willingness to devote serious resources to acquiring the technology, much of which already exists. In this respect it is fortunate that the British have long enjoyed a policy of sharing Sigint with the United States, and it could well be that we will ultimately be dependent on it.
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on 29 July 2010
The great thing about this book is that it isn't a sensationalist revelation from an ex. member of the intelligence services, but a research based book using open sources. The line 'there are no secrets, just lazy researchers' is very apt.

The information about some of the big stories of the last century are fascinating - the General Belgrano where SIGINT had picked up a command for it to proceed to task force and sink British ships, and its zig zag course meant that it was true when the Argentinians said it was outside exclusion zone, and sailing away from Falkland islands at the time it was hit. There was no other real decision for the British commanders to take.

As someone who lives in Cheltenham, it is great to see some of the big episodes of GCHQ, and also the relationship with the US.

First class book and to be recommended for anyone with an interest in this area!
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on 18 October 2010
America's signals intelligence "special relationship" with the UK was surprising to me, as it really does (did?) seem to be close (as opposed to the "special relationship" much touted and abused as a concept by the media nowadays). So I found this book just as interesting from the wider political perspective, as well as the detail about GCHQ's activities.

Only drawback for me was the one or two references to how other academics' writings were wrong. Academics can't resist an opportunity for an argument.
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on 20 August 2012
Richard Aldrich traces the development of GCHQ and it's predecessors from the 1940's when the focus was on Germany to 2010 and the "War on Terror". In between he covers a lot of ground showing how the organisation grew and adapted to changing threats and new technologies. It is interesting to see how the need and desire for more and better intelligence has influenced foreign policy decisions since the end of the Second World War. I am interested in history and in particular military history so I was pleased to find information in this book which I had not previously read about intelligence activities surrounding major historical events. Given the close (and sometimes tricky) relationship between British and American intelligence services there is quite a lot of information about the NSA (the US version of GCHQ) and it's occasionally difficult relationship with the CIA.
What I liked in particular was how easy the book is to read; not at all bogged down in detail as some books on intelligence services can be. Indeed it is written in quite a lively style which makes it easy to cover the ground quickly.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a better understanding of the role of communications and signals intelligence in the events of the decades since the end of the war.
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on 12 August 2010
Very interesting. Enough information to make it very worthwhile. Having some experience in the intelligence/security business I have always been surprised at the level of secrecy that continues to surround matters that have well passed their need to be classed secret or above. I appreciate that the UK secerity/secret services are governed by treaty obligations. I also appreciate that there are people that wish to expose matters of importance purely for the sake of doing so and that this has an adverse effect on disclosures by the intelligence services. This book has taken us a big step forward in understanding the valus of sigint.
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on 15 August 2010
I was immediately immersed in this admirable book which I found joined up a great number of dots from previously published literature on the topic. I do, however, that Aldrich or his proof-readers have devoted just a few seconds to UK locations; Chicksands is not near Baldoch (which is in Hertfordshire), rather Bedford. Likewise, Bletchley somehow landed up in Bedfordshire. Small criticisms, though. The notes and bibliography are breath-taking - and will keep me busy for years to come!
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on 20 November 2010
This is a readable and factual book, which contains a series of accounts of episodes in the history of GCHQ and its associated organisations. The first chapters are a little slow, reading as a list or organisational changes, and I was surprised there were not more pages on the work at Bletchley Park in the Second World War. However, the sections on the Cold War, the Falklands and more recent events are gripping.
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Many books have been written about the secret world of GCHQ and its relations to other intelligence organisations, both at home (MI5, SIS etc) and abroad (CIA, NSA etc) but this this must surely be the most detailed yet. It charts every significant event (or at least all those that are known from publically available documents) involving GCQH since its foundation as the Government Code and Cypher School right up to its current activities combating terrorism and international crime. The technical details about gathering and interpreting intelligence information using a wide range of techniques, from relatively simple methods such as tapping telephones to the complex operation of collecting coded signals by aircraft flights and submarines, and their subsequent decoding, is very impressive, So are the accounts of ever-present inter-organisational rivalries.

Less impressive is what was actually done with the final `product'. The list of major events totally missed by the intelligence agencies (including those of the Americans with their vastly greater capacity) is well know and includes the 9/11 New York bombing amongst many others. Less well known is the failure to resolve the dilemma of exactly who should have access to secret information. If the product is extremely valuable then access has always been very restricted, but this has meant that battlefield commanders have usually been deprived of essential information and have had to rely on their own, less effective, on-the-ground facilities. Only in recent years has the importance of rapid communication to those at the `sharp end' been appreciated and steps taken to solve the problem of greater access. More openness has in general been a feature of the modern GCHQ. This has been forced upon the organisation because of pressure from both some politicians and the also the general public, who, rightly, want to know what value they are getting for the billions spend by secret organisations, particularly when hugely wasteful expenditure on computer systems is revealed.

The book ends with a discussion of the latest controversy about proposals to `hoover up' just about every bit of telecommunications data that is generated in the UK and to `mine' it for potential useful security information. This is at an early stage, but many eminent people have warned that we may be entering a new and irreversible situation where the government and its security organisations have an unprecedented amount of information about the private lives of its citizens. It is a potentially worrying prospect.
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on 4 June 2013
GCHQ by Richard Aldrich is a veritable tome of information. The Author is a Professor of History and this is reflected in the style of his book, at times it reads almost like a never-ending list of historical events and utterances.

While the book claims to be an uncensored history of GCHQ, it is important to keep in mind that the sources and historical opinions are largely UK centric. In this respect the book does not provide a wider critical analysis of GCHQ or the role of state surveillance.

I particularly enjoyed the last 100 pages, which chart GCHQ's transition from spying on foreign governments to spying on the civilian population, this highlights a general trend of the Security Services transitioning from the enemy abroad, to the enemy within. With the end of the cold war and a continual decrease in what are deemed rouge or unfriendly states, Western Secret Services have in the past twenty years transitioned from seeing their enemies as foreign states to inventing new enemies in their own populations.

Technology has now made it possible for our governments to record our every move in the digital domain, which provides them with an unprecedented picture of us as individuals. To unleash what are essentially arms of the military on your own civilian population is an extremely worrying development. The Armed Forces have a certain mode of thinking, which in many respects is completely alien to its civilian counterpart and is very likely to lead to complete disaster.
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on 21 August 2011
Professor Aldrich has -again- written a superb book, this time on signals intelligence, covering roughly more than 90 years of this dark trade. There are fascinating insights into the into the world of intrigue, deception, double spies, the various arcane techiques and the state-of-the-art intelligence matters of today, when cyber-intelligence and espionage have their field day.It covesr Britain,Indonesia, Malaya and Cheltenham as well.
In short, anyone interested in espionage and intelligence should read this gripping book!
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