Monday, March 29, 2010

GCHQ: Spooks in Socks and Sandals

Via Times Online UK -

Tucked away on the outskirts of Cheltenham is a vast circular structure wrapped in razor wire. Getting inside requires passing through layer after layer of ever-tightening security. Everyone in the town knows what it is — Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) — but few secrets of its work emerge.

With about 5,500 employees, GCHQ is Britain’s largest but least well-known intelligence agency. Its mission is to eavesdrop on global communications, hunting for the terrorist phone call, Taliban radio traffic or a telling email from a foreign government.

GCHQ operates in a hermetically sealed bubble of security. But the building — known as the doughnut because it is round with a hole in the middle — is open and airy. Casually dressed people stroll down the main thoroughfare, “the street”, chat in coffee bars or work in open-plan offices. Signs for “serious crime” and “Asia-Pacific team” hint at the breadth of their work.

Intruders are unusual in this closed world. As I am escorted around, a voice comes across the PA system: “Blinds facing ‘the street’ in blocks A and B should be closed immediately.” A glance through a window might reveal something secret.


GCHQ’s work is often masked. One time it did make the news was in the run-up to the Iraq war, when a message from its US counterpart, the National Security Agency, was leaked to the press. The Americans wanted help in spying on diplomats as a possible vote on a second United Nations resolution approached. Katharine Gun, a Mandarin linguist, was sacked for the leak but not prosecuted.


ith MI6, and relationships with MI5 have become closer recently. Both agencies joke about GCHQ’s alleged lack of dress sense. “The first thing we need to do is take you to a proper tailor,” a suave MI6 officer is said to have told a GCHQ officer arriving on a faraway bugging mission.

“We can occasionally come over as nerdy or geeky,” Cheltenham’s properly attired director concedes.

“There are a couple of socks-and-sandal-wearing mathematicians,” says a nonsandal-wearing analyst, Joanna. “But to do this job you do have to be reasonably normal and outgoing. It is not just you sitting alone with a computer. You do have to talk to lots of people.”


The dangers of this work are evident from a walk through the grassy open-air space in the middle of the building. There, in one corner, is a memorial to the small number of staff who have died in service. The names show that more fatalities have come in Afghanistan in recent years than anywhere else.

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