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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.