11 June 2013
The bilateral relationship between GCHQ and the NSA is uniquely special. It is the core of the "special relationship". The two agencies are truly intertwined.
There are NSA liaison officers assigned to GCHQ in Cheltenham, and GCHQ officers at the NSA's headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.
Though officially described as an RAF base, Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire is the NSA's largest eavesdropping centre outside the US. It is a satellite receiving station that monitors foreign military traffic but is also plugged into Britain's telecommunications network.
The relationship between the two agencies is reflected in a 1994 staff manual which told GCHQ staff that the agency's contribution must be "of sufficient scale and of the right kind to make a continuation of the Sigint alliance worthwhile to our partners".
Significantly, it added: "This may entail on occasion the applying of UK resources to the meeting of US requirements".
GCHQ and the NSA trawl through the airwaves, harvesting a huge amount of data consisting of both the content of conversations, and the numbers, addresses, and websites, used by individuals on the telephone, in emails, or on the internet.
Ministers and commissioners (former senior judges) appointed to monitor GCHQ's activities cannot possibly know the content or the quantity, of all the data the agency collects on a daily basis.
So it boils down to a question of trust.
Dennis Mitchell, a senior GCHQ official who resigned in protest against the trade union ban imposed there by the Thatcher government in 1984, described the agency as a powerful, unaccountable, arm of government whose only watchdog was the workforce.
"It is they on whom the general public must rely if errors of judgment, excessive zeal or malpractices are to be averted..." GCHQ staff, he said, had "considerable discretion".
In the Commons on Monday, the foreign secretary, William Hague, praised GCHQ staff for their " professionalism, dedication, and integrity".
The staff may well share those qualities.
We should remember, however, how in the late 1960s GCHQ cooperated in the illegal eavesdropping on the communications of such civil rights activists as the actress Jane Fonda, the singer Joan Baez, and the US paediatrician and best-selling author, Benjamin Spock.
With the help of a US-funded GCHQ listening station at Bude on North Cornwall, the two agencies did each other's dirty work, getting round their domestic laws by spying on each other's citizens.
The past may be another country but it was not long ago that GCHQ was embroiled in a controversy leading to one of its employees charged under the Official Secrets Act for blowing the whistle.
In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Katharine Gun was charged with leaking a secret email from the NSA requesting GCHQ for help in what amounted to a dirty tricks campaign: a plan for the bugging of offices and homes in New York belonging to UN diplomats from the six "swing states", countries whose support would be vital if Washington and London were to win a Security Council resolution authorising the invasion of Iraq.
We do not know how GCHQ responded to the request because the authorities, apparently afraid of what may emerge in a criminal trial, suddenly dropped the charges.
Hague suggested in his blustering — and carefully worded — response to the NSA leaks in the Commons on Monday that everything about the way GCHQ gathers intelligence is tickety-boo.
It may be, but ministers have not explained how their assertions should be accepted on trust now.
Unanswered questions remain.
One we could call the Blunkett Question — after the former home secretary intervened in the Commons on Monday to ask Hague how ministers could control the way personal information offered by the NSA, opposed to having been sought, could be used by GCHQ.
In such cases, authorisation would be "extremely difficult", Blunkett said.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, chairman of parliament's intelligence and security committee, said: "The law is quite clear...If the British intelligence agencies are seeking to know the content of emails about people living in the United Kingdom, then they have to get authority," he said. "That means ministerial authority."
But Rifkind did not ask about data and information sent to GCHQ but not solicited by it.
Hague had no answer to this point. He avoided the question whether ministerial consent was needed before intelligence was supplied to GCHQ by the NSA and whether ministers were told what was being done with it once GCHQ received it.
He spoke of "baseless" accusations but he made clear he was referring only to suggestions that GCHQ used the NSA "to get around UK law, obtaining information that they cannot legally obtain in the UK".
That is not an answer to the question about that GCHQ does with all the information it gets from the NSA, including, it is alleged, from Google and other private service providers and social media networks on the basis of US laws which (surprising though it may seem to the British public) allow much greater intrusion into private lives than British laws.
Sir David Omand, a former director of GCHQ and prime ministerial adviser on security and intelligence, said last year that clear guidelines had to be introduced in law to allow the security services and police to intercept social media such as Facebook and Twitter while avoiding the "chilling effect" of state surveillance.
The explosive growth in social media has provided criminals, paedophiles and terrorists a "secret space", he warned.
"Democratic legitimacy demands that, where new methods of intelligence-gathering and use are to be introduced, they should be on a firm legal basis and rest on parliamentary and public understanding of what is involved, even if the operational details of the sources and methods used must sometimes remain secret," he wrote in a report by the Demos thinktank.