How Britain and the US keep watch on
By Phillip Knightley
the National Security Agency's imposing headquarters
at Fort Meade, Maryland, ringed by a double-chain
fence topped by barbed wire with strands of
electrified wire between them, America "bugs" the
Nothing politically or militarily significant, whether
mentioned in a telephone call, in a conversation in
the office of the secretary general of the United
Nations, Kofi Annan, or in a company fax or e-mail,
escapes its attention.
computers - measured in acres occupied by them rather
than simple figures - "vacuum the entire
electromagnetic spectrum", homing in on "key words"
which may suggest something of interest to NSA
customers is being conveyed.
at least $3.5bn (£1.9bn) a year to run. It employs at
least 20,000 officers (not counting the 100,000
servicemen and civilians around
the world over whom it has control). Its shredders
process 40 tons of paper a day.
junior partner is
Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) at
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, the eavesdropping organisation for which
Katharine Gun worked. Like NSA, GCHQ is a highly
secret operation. Until 1983, when one of its
officers, Geoffrey Prime, was charged with spying for
the Russians, the Government had refused to reveal
what GCHQ's real role was, no doubt because its
operations in peacetime were without a legal basis.
Its security is maintained by massive and deliberately
Newspapers have been discouraged from mentioning it; a
book by a former GCHQ officer, Jock Kane, was seized
by Special Branch police officers and a still
photograph of its headquarters was banned by the
Independent Broadcasting Authority, leaving a blank
screen during a World in Action programme. As with NSA,
the size of GCHQ's staff at
Cheltenham, about 6,500, gives no real indication of its strength. It has
monitoring stations in
Cyprus, West Germany, and Australia and smaller ones
elsewhere. Much of its overseas work is done by
budget is thought to be more than £300m a year. A
large part of this is funded by the United States in
return for the right to run NSA listening
stations in Britain -
Chicksands, Bedfordshire; Edzell, Scotland;
Mentworth Hill, Harrogate; Brawdy,
- and on British territory around the world.
- always listening?
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collaboration between the two agencies offers many
advantages to both. Not only does it make monitoring
the globe easier, it solves tricky legal problems and
is the basis of the Prime Minister's statement
yesterday that all Britain's bugging is lawful. The
two agencies simply swap each other's dirty work.
eavesdrops on calls made by American citizens and the
NSA monitors calls made by British citizens, thus
allowing each government plausibly to deny it has
tapped its own citizens' calls, as they do. The NSA
station at Menwith Hill intercepts all international
telephone calls made from Britain and GCHQ has a list
of American citizens whose phone conversations
interest the NSA.
NSA request to GCHQ for help in bugging the diplomats
from those nations who were holding out for
Security Council resolution to authorise an attack on
Iraq is unsurprising. Nor is it surprising that both
organisations wanted to provide their political
masters with recordings of private conversations of
high-ranking international diplomats.
not difficult. Listening "bugs" can be planted in
phones, electrical plugs, desk lamps and book spines.
a clear line of sight, one device enables someone to
detect and and interpret sound waves vibrating against
the glass window panes of an office.
Bugging the world is not the problem. The problem is
avoiding drowning in a sea of information. We should
not be surprised that GCHQ and NSA eavesdrop on us. We
pay them to do it. We should be asking: "Do they earn
their keep?" And, unless we get a few more
whistle-blowers like Ms Gun, we will not know, because
both agencies surround themselves with a wall of
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DO WE BUG?
Although under domestic law GCHQ needs a warrant from
the Home Secretary to tap telephones in
it can do so abroad without such authorisation.
the United Nations headquarters in New York is
considered sovereign territory, and placing a bug
there would be illegal under international law.
Intelligence services spy on hostile and friendly
countries, the latter mainly for commercial reasons,
but also to gain an edge in diplomatic negotiations.
Nato allies are not always immune from intelligence
operations by Britain.
working for the UN inspection teams in Iraq were
convinced they were under surveillance.
Germany and Russia complained of a rise in espionage
against them. There was intense activity directed at
Jordan and Syria, as well as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and
Officials say the only shock about Katharine Gun's
discovery of an e-mail from the National Security
Agency is that she was surprised by it.