Posts Tagged GCHQ

The Past, Present and Future of Intelligence Work

A few weeks ago I attended an event organised by the brilliant Mile End Group to mark the 50th anniversary of the Defence Intelligence Staff. With many long-serving members of the intelligence community in the audience, discussion inevitably turned to the changing nature of intelligence work – from the post-Second World War focus on Communism to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the future challenges of cyber-terrorism. Below I take a look at some of the different aspects of working in intelligence in the past, the present and the future.

GCHQ at Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

A satellite communications dish outside the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Photo: GCHQ/Crown Copyright/MOD


Intelligence work by its nature is constantly evolving and so, therefore, is the remit of the various organisations involved in monitoring, analysing and combating threats to the UK’s security. Some services have changed more than others – GCHQ started life deciphering the telegrams of persons on interest and although the technology has changed SIGNIT is still very much its territory. On the other hand, Defence Intelligence, founded to provide data collection and analysis at the highest, strategic, level has found itself increasingly involved in operational work; the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts saw Defence Intelligence staff deployed more frequently than ever before (other times included to the former Yugoslavia and during the Sierra Leone civil war). More recently, there has been a proposal to move UK counter-terrorism responsibility from the Met police to the National Crime Agency (NCA) – an organisation whose focus has thus far largely been on drugs, people trafficking and child exploitation. The UK’s intelligence organisations therefore need to be flexible and adaptable to change with modern times, while also capitalising on their decades’ worth of institutional experience.


It used to be Communism and the Soviet Union, now it’s Islamic extremism and the Middle East/Asia: as threats to the UK shift from one ideology/country/region to another, so too does the focus of intelligence work and so too does the need for specialised knowledge. Russia is a perfect example of the difficulties facing the intelligence services when it comes to the issue of knowledge: during the Cold War there were Russian experts aplenty but with the fall of the Soviet Union attention turned elsewhere, and the agencies were hunting out those who spoke Arabic/Farsi/Pushtu. Now, with Putin’s actions towards Ukraine, it appears that some intelligence experts are worried about the lack of current information on Russia.

The problem of course is how to predict where the next flash points are going to be. Which leads to a catch 22 – you don’t necessarily know that Russia is still a potential threat to the UK if you are not putting the resources into monitoring that country; but you won’t put your resources there if you don’t think there is a reason to. One way to address this is to go for a strategy of broad thinking, trying to make sure you have a little knowledge on a lot rather than vice versa – jack of all trades and master of none. At the moment this appears to be the general trend, certainly in Defence Intelligence anyway. The problem is there will always be a need for more in-depth, specialised knowledge of a particular ideology/country/region. This perennial balancing act between broad versus deep knowledge will not doubt always be an issue for intelligence work. However, future technological advances that enhance our ability to amass and analyse vast amounts of data will no doubt help.


Indeed, the undisputed greatest change that has overcome intelligence work since the latter half of the twentieth century is the massive advances in technology and the sheer magnitude of the data that we are now able to collect on people. The modern intelligence worker is therefore going to have to be au fait with technology in way that goes beyond having good IT skills. These changes pose their own challenges, however. The ability to collect huge reams of information is all well and good, but data is only as useful as how you interpret and use it – and the more data you have, potentially the more man-power it takes to analyse this, the more chance you have of missing something vital. There is also the danger of worshipping too much at the altar of technology and losing focus on what some might call the fundamentals of intelligence work – HUMINT. One argument for the Met retaining jurisdiction over counter-terrorism, for example, is that the police are imbedded in the local communities, allowing them to gather information, track suspects and uncover plots in a way the NCA could not. The Afghan conflict provides a clear demonstration of the need for both the machine and the man: drones may have come into their own when used for reconnaissance of the difficult Afghan terrain, but counterinsurgency relies on HUMINT – men and women on the ground making human contact with those they are trying to influence or gather information from.


Everybody knows the old ‘tap-on-the-shoulder’ routine of intelligence recruitment: young men of a certain class and educational background, usually with the right family connections, would be individually recruited to work in the intelligence services. How much of the intelligence workforce was recruited this way is arguable, but the general point rings true: given that before 1994 nobody could officially acknowledge the existence of the UK intelligence agencies, recruitment was done more surreptitiously (perhaps adding to the allure of intelligence work for some).

Today it is not uncommon to see one or more of the intelligence services with a stand at a careers fair. MI5, MI6 and GCHQ all now advertise their vacancies on their own websites while the NCA and MoD feature on the Civil Service Job Site. In the age of the ‘competency question’ and psychometric tests, recruitment into intelligence work has also become much more standardised, and arguably more democratic: any British national with the right aptitude should (in theory) be able to work as an analyst for MI5.

However, there has been some push-back against current recruitment trends by those who argue that the application process is killing off individuality among applicants. It has been said that many of the UK’s greatest intelligence workers would not be able to pass today’s rigid application questions, difficult psychometric tests and assessment centres. In future then, we might see more of the personal touch brought into recruitment practices, and perhaps an evolution in psychometric tests to make them more nuanced in their assessment of personality. Just as recruitment practices have changed, so too has the training of intelligence workers undergone rapid development since the second half of the twentieth century. The professionalisation of staff, is in fact one of the key changes noted by many at the Defence Intelligence event.

Paul Dukes

Would men such as the infamous Paul Dukes have been able to pass modern day intelligence recruitment processes?

For me it is always this great juxtaposition between the continuity and the change in intelligence work which makes it so fascinating a topic. On the one hand, Britain has a fantastically rich heritage of intelligence work: it was one of the first countries in the world to set up specific schemes to keep informed on the doings of foreign powers, with Walsingham’s network of spies, cryptographers and forgers in the sixteenth century. On the other hand, technology and globalisation are advancing so rapidly that the practice of monitoring and analysing threats to the UK’s security is in many ways unrecognisable from just a couple of decades ago. It is how organisations handle these changes while not losing connection to their institutional pasts that ensures the effectiveness of modern-day intelligence work.


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The ISC and Intelligence Oversight: Part Two

Part Two

Educational Body

So if it’s not catching the intelligence services doing illegal things, nor is it properly investigating when things do go wrong, perhaps the ISC best serves as an educational organisation. Intelligence work is one of those areas where fact is often obscured by fiction. That up until 1994 you could not even officially acknowledge the existence of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ has further inhibited the understanding of the true nature of our intelligence agencies. Some determined scholars, such as Professor Christopher Andrew, have been doing their best to shed light on this world, but there still remains an element of the unknown when it comes to intelligence work, particularly amongst the general public. It could be said that by holding public hearings and by laying an annual report before Parliament, the ISC is performing a crucial role in educating people on the work of the agencies. However, do we understand more about intelligence work today than we did before the ISC’s creation? Perhaps so, but is that because of the work of the ISC itself? Or is it because MI5, MI6 and GCHQ now have their own websites, and because their chiefs now give interviews to the media and discuss their agencies with think tanks? How much those outside of the ‘ring of secrecy’ can ever truly know about the work of intelligence staff is debatable anyway. As for Parliament, ex-ISC members are often elevated to the House of Lords after leaving the committee, thus making this the body of expertise on intelligence rather than the House of Commons. The sessions in Parliament when the ISC annual reports are presented are notoriously poorly attended. Which, having read some of them myself, is somewhat understandable – the reports are surprisingly mundane, covering issues such as employee relations and problems with computer systems. The truth certainly appears more boring than fiction.

Financial Oversight

With the help of the National Audit Office (NAO), one important function of the committee is that of looking into how the intelligence agencies spend their money. Whether our spending on intelligence is producing ‘value for money’ is, of course, almost impossible to determine. Much of the way the agencies spend their money is dependent on the assessment of the threat level, both at home and abroad, which is of itself complex and fluid. But in other, more day-to-day financial issues, the ISC can play a part – albeit not always to much effect. For example, in its 2004-2005 annual report the committee discussed the progress of the SCOPE project (the introduction of a computer communications systems to link all the agencies). The project was, by then, three years over schedule and 50% over budget. So much for financial oversight.

Is the ISC trying to square the circle? Image courtesy of:

Is the ISC trying to square the circle?
Image courtesy of:

Security Blanket

Given the apparent issues and limitations to its other areas of work, perhaps the most useful thing the ISC does is to provide a security blanket (if you mind the pun) to the public. Maybe, given how uncomfortable intelligence work can sometimes make us, we enjoy knowing that there is a body whose job it is ‘protect’ our interests. Which relates to my first point in Part One about the rogue elephant. Even though, in reality, intelligence staff are not always committing dubious acts, maybe it is healthy for the public to have a little cynicism. After all, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. And if events such as the Open Evidence Session makes us feel better, than arguably the ISC is doing well. The problem with this line of thought is that it would mean that the actual work of the committee is less important that its mere existence, which is not a nice thought, particularly for the ISC members themselves.

Squaring the circle

Given everything we have looked at in both parts of this post, we should be closer to an understanding of what exactly the ISC is and what it does. However, things still remain unclear. There are certainly limitations to what the committee appears able to do in terms of oversight of the UK’s intelligence agencies. It is dubious how much it is able to detect the rogue elephant (if it exists). It has no power to make the Government listen to its judgements and take note of its suggestions: ‘It has discharged its statutory responsibilities when it delivers its reports to the Prime Minister and Parliament.’ Likewise, the committee can only educate people as far as they want to listen and to try to keep an eye on the agencies budget. But the greatest difficulty in trying to analyse the ISC is in deciding if the committee is failing in its remit, or whether it is simply failing to address problems it is not actually charged with remedying. Because, despite the various acts regarding the ISC, its responsibilities remains somewhat blurred. Instead, it seems that for a while the committee has been ‘making it up as it goes along’. As some have noted, perhaps an ultimate flaw with the ISC is that it has been keen ‘to appear “all things to all men”’. It has been said by many that the ISC is among the hardest working of all committees and there is no doubt that trying to understand the complexities of the intelligence services requires aptitude and dedication. Perhaps the committee has simply been spread too thin.

A further problem is the nature of the relationship the ISC has with the intelligence agencies. Being within the ‘ring of secrecy’ is necessary for the ISC to carry out its work, and it could be argued that the committee’s greatest achievement has been to gain the trust of the agencies, allowing it access to sensitive information vital to its function. This was particularly important prior to the 2013 Justice and Security Act, when the committee had no powers to compel intelligence staff to produce requested documents. But does working so closely with those it is trying to oversee create split loyalties for the ISC? As has been observed:

…the Committee at times appears to be attempting to square the circle of supporting the intelligence Agencies and criticising aspects of their behaviour.

Which would suggest that there is something inherently contradictory in the concept of an intelligence oversight organisation – it needs to be at the same time both removed from and part of the intelligence apparatus of the country. In which case, given that the very foundation of its existence is questionable, the ISC appears to be making the best of things. After all, the committee has only been in existence for twenty years and there is no real UK precedence for the work it does. If it has failed at times it has also contributed, in its own way, to creating greater affinity between the public and the intelligence services. Maybe it is enough just for it to exist: that we feel better that it’s there, even if we are only vaguely aware of what it actually does when we are not looking. And if occasionally it makes us think a little deeper about our intelligence agencies and to talk about the issue of oversight, then surely that is a job well done.

Reading List

ISC Annual and Special Reports

‘Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction’ (London: HMSO, 2004).

A. Defty, ‘Educating Parliamentarians about Intelligence: The Role of the British Intelligence and Security Committee’, Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 61, No.4 (2008), pp. 621-641.

J. Glees, P.H.J. Davies & J.N.L. Morrison, The Open Side of Secrecy: Britain’s Intelligence and Security Committee (London: Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

K.G. Robertson, ‘Recent Reform of Intelligence in the United Kingdom: Democratisation or Risk Management?’, Intelligence & National Security, Vol. 13, No. 2 (1998), pp. 144-158.

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The ISC and Intelligence Oversight: Part One

‘Oversight? How can you have a covert organisation if you have people looking over your shoulder?’

‘I’ve got an oversight meeting. Can you imagine? They think they can look into our closet, as if we’d let them’.

The Good Shepherd

Can we ever have oversight of our intelligence services? If you’re a (fictional) member of the CIA you might not think so. If you work for the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), however, you probably have another opinion. For the entire job of the ISC is to provide just such oversight to the UK’s various intelligence bodies. Indeed, as if to prove its worth, in November 2013 the ISC performed its first public hearing in history. In a live(ish) televised session the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ sat answering questions about Al-Qaeda, the threat of cyberterrorism and the Snowden affair, among other things. According to the ISC itself, the event was supposed to ‘give an insight into the world of intelligence, and the work the Agencies do on behalf of the UK. It represents a very significant step forward in terms of the openness and transparency of the Agencies.’ Yet, although the Open Evidence Session was interesting, the ‘insight’ it was supposed to provide was rather limited. Nothing of any surprise was revealed and Sir Iain Lobban, Mr Andrew Parker and Sir John Sawers answered exactly as might have been expected of them. Take, for example, when the committee’s questions moved onto the matter of torture and the allegations that have been made against MI5 and MI6. Parker and Sawers’ reaction was to vehemently emphasise the training and protocol in place that should prevent UK intelligence staff becoming complicit in such activities – just as you would expect. In the end, I came away with more questions than had been answered and a less than reassuring feeling that the ISC has everything under control when it comes to the UK’s intelligence services. Instead, this idea of intelligence oversight seemed even more of an oxymoron. The ISC may ask all the questions it likes of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, but what if these questions can’t actually be answered? The intelligence chiefs can give hypothetical answers to hypothetical questions while their words are being broadcast across the country, but does this reflect what really goes on behind their closed doors? Can anybody ever look into their closet?

So what is the ISC?

The ISC was created in 1994 when the Intelligence Services Act finally acknowledged the existence and remit of the UK’s three main intelligence agencies. The role of the committee was ‘to examine the policy, administration and expenditure of the Security Service, Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)’. Later, the Justice and Security Act 2013 reformed the ISC, ‘making it a Committee of Parliament; providing greater powers; and increasing its remit (including oversight of operational activity and the wider intelligence and security activities of Government)’.  After 2013 the ISC was also to examine the work of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC); the Assessments Staff; the National Security Secretariat; Defence Intelligence in the Ministry of Defence; and the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism in the Home Office. Members of the ISC are now appointed by, and report directly to, Parliament. They are within the ‘ring of secrecy’, having access to highly classified materials which intelligence staff are legally required to provide when asked. Which gives us all the official definitions. However, it doesn’t explain the full story of what the ISC does. Surprisingly, although an inordinate amount of attention is paid to intelligence work – from spy fiction and film to academic research and public debate – not as much is said about intelligence oversight and relatively few people have looked directly at the ISC. Those who have, however, have come up with some ideas regarding the committee and its exact purpose which goes beyond the text of the intelligence acts.

Current ISC Chairman, SIr Malcolm Rifkind. Photo courtesy of Chatham House.

Current ISC Chairman, SIr Malcolm Rifkind. Photo courtesy of Chatham House.

Catching the ‘Rogue Elephant’

Most people would perhaps believe that the ISC’s remit should be to catch the ‘rogue elephant’: that the intelligence services are, by their nature, frequently involved in illegal, subversive activity and therefore some sort of oversight is necessary to make sure that they are not doing what they shouldn’t be. The recent stories about the US government tapping Angela Merkel’s phone or using information from Facebook to spy on civilians are just some examples of stories which fuel this fear of rogue intelligence services. The problem with the ‘rogue elephant’ theory, however, is that despite what the popular view is:

intelligence services…are no more likely to go awry than any other agency, public or private…as a general rule, it is simply not the case that intelligence agencies act independently, according to their own or an imagined foreign policy, or violate the law wholesale.

And, even if the intelligence agencies were involved in illegal activity, how is the ISC going to be able to find out? They are investigating people who are specifically trained in deception, used to getting past ‘infinitely more menacing adversaries than a part-time committee of otherwise fully occupied politicians’. If it is the case then, that not only does the ‘rogue elephant’ rarely exist, but that even when it does appear an oversight body is unable to detect, let alone stop it, the question remains, what is the purpose of the ISC?

Instrument of inquiry

Another theory is that the ISC should be viewed as an ‘instrument of inquiry’. Rather catching the ‘rogue elephant’ a more logical use of the ISC might be its capacity to investigate and to suggest solutions to mistakes and misconduct. Inquiries cost time and money: having a standing body of people knowledgeable on the intelligence apparatus which can consistently hold the agencies to account significantly reduces both. However, as an instrument of inquiry the committee has not always been successful – with the issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), for example. That Saddam Hussain had WMDs was given as the main reason for the joint British/American invasion of Iraq in March 2003. A paper published by the UK Government in September 2002 to garner support for the war (the infamous ‘September Dossier’) had outlined the intelligence on Iraq’s WMDs. Following the invasion, as it became apparent that the WMDs did not exist, this intelligence came under scrutiny. In September 2003 the ISC published a report:

…to examine whether the available intelligence, which informed the decision to invade Iraq, was adequate and properly assessed and whether it was accurately reflected in Government publications.

This was the committee’s time to shine. Something had gone wrong with Britain’s intelligence, whether it be in the gathering, the analysis or the reporting stage and the ISC was to find out what. Nevertheless, the ISC failed to conduct a satisfactory investigation and its report was criticised for lacking scope and depth. Instead, in February 2004 the Government charged Lord Butler with investigating the matter further. In fact, it was the ISC’s failure in the matter of WMDs that partly led to the Justice and Security Act of 2013 which gave the ISC more teeth to act as an inquiry body. By the act, the committee now has the power to demand material relevant to its investigations, rather than to just request it as prior to 2013.

Part Two to follow.

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