Britain’s Surveillance State

by Stephen Dorril, Tom Mills

Stephen Dorril discusses the Snowden revelations, corporate power and the origins of British intelligence and the ‘special relationship’.

First published: 14 November, 2013 | Category: Civil Liberties, Corporate power, The State

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has revealed the existence of an international network of mass surveillance in which Britain's GCHQ plays a central role, working closely with European partners, but subordinate to the United States.  Stephen Dorril is the founding co-editor of Lobster and a lecturer at the University of Hudderfield.  He has worked as an author, researcher and investigative journalist specialising in intelligence since 1986 and is the author of a number of books on intelligence and British politics including MI6: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service.  He spoke to NLP’s Tom Mills about the Snowden revelations, corporate power and the origins of British intelligence and the ‘special relationship’.


Let’s start with the origins of British intelligence.  Is there some historical context which can help us better understand the recent revelations? 

It might sound a bit strange but I think what is happening with the NSA and GCHQ can be put into historical context if we refer to Cable and Wireless.  Cable and Wireless was responsible for laying down a lot of the cables across the oceans at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.  And this enabled the British Empire, as it was then, to have control of most of the world’s communications.  So a lot of communications from the United States, Europe and elsewhere were actually passing through cables owned by Cable and Wireless.  It was only much, much later that we discovered that Cable and Wireless was almost completely controlled by the British Government.  And this became an important part of the communications set up of the British intelligence services.  There’s a nice little story that when Kim Philby went to the United States in the late 1940s as the liaison officer for MI6 with American intelligence, they didn’t think that much of British intelligence by that time because they were already expanding rapidly, they have a lot more money, they had greater resources.  But the one thing they didn’t have was access to a communications network.  But Philby did.  And the Americans were quite surprised that he was able to send messages around the remnants of the British Empire, to London and other places, very quickly.  That was the one thing that they prized above all else.  So you can see in that already the kind of developing relationship that took place between the National Security Agency and GCHQ. 

That’s interesting because journalism has similar origin; in Reuters, the wires and that communications infrastructure. 

That’s true and of course it was only much later that we knew that Reuters itself was subsidised by, and had a very close relationship with, the British Government.  The British Government has always been very good at controlling access to communications, monitoring communications and collaborating with individuals who use those communications.  That kind of access was the foundation stone really of the agreements made at the end of the Second World War between the Americans and the British – and the British acted on behalf of Australia, Canada and New Zealand as well.  They reached agreements in 1947 to pass secrets and communications to one another, but also agreed not to keep surveillance on each other. And the only asset that the British then had really was access to islands and remote places where they built tracking stations.  Places like Cyprus where they had a major GCHQ base which covered a lot of the Middle East, and other areas that the Americans didn’t have access to at that time in the remnants of the Empire and the Commonwealth.  And gradually they built up a worldwide communications system which now is used to do all the things that have been revealed. 

And how has the relationship between Britain and the United States changed since the Second World War?  Were GCHQ and the other British intelligence agencies ever able to operate independently? 

No, they basically haven’t since 1947.  The height of British intelligence was the Second World War.  After that the Americans took over, purely on the basis of money and resources.  They could afford to spend huge sums that the British didn’t have.  The only assets that the British had were physical assets – remote places that provide a network of communications for the NSA – and a small element of brain power, such as crypto analysis.  Although that is done increasingly by computers, there was a period when the British were very good at breaking codes and analysing material that was useful to the Americans.  

The British are always fighting a losing game as it were because they have to appease the Americans because a lot of the money and infrastructure comes from the Americans.  In the end I would say it is something like 90% power to Americans and 10% to the British and the rest.  It was a colonisation of intelligence activities really.  Almost all British intelligence information now comes via the US and there’s nothing they can do really if they want to continue as they are.  This why they won’t upset the Americans and won’t criticise the Americans.  And it’s very cynical.  The US would ditch the British tomorrow if the Germans came on board, who in many ways are more important than the British, economically and therefore intelligence wise.  This has been a subtheme in British intelligence since Suez.  Suez was the great break.  The intelligence organisations in the UK realised they could actually do very little without the say so of the Americans.  There were a group of intelligence officers around the Deputy Chief of MI6, George Kennedy Young, who was very close to Anthony Eden, and thought the way out of this was through Europe; that Europe was the only means of providing the UK with any semblance of an independent intelligence capability.  In some ways that’s come right round now, because there are some people beginning to think in those terms again; that the only way out of what is happening is actually greater integration and greater cooperation with the European intelligence services. 

Have you been surprised by the extent of the surveillance that has been revealed. 

No.  A decade ago or more there was Echelon, which was a computer system with which the US, Britain, New Zealand and Canada scooped up world communications with a series of super computers.  The problem then was that they couldn’t analyse it.  They had so much material that it was difficult to analyse enough of it, so a lot of it went to waste.  The big difference now, and the reason why this is on such a different scale, is they have the ability to analyse the data.  They’ve got the computing power and the ability to do that.  The actual surveillance isn’t new.  That’s just what they do.  That’s why the British had the Cable and Wireless cables under the oceans.  It’s not that different.  They internet is still based on cables.  But it’s the ability to actually analyse the data and use it that’s new.

What are they looking for?  What’s the point of all this surveillance? 

The point of surveillance is surveillance itself, I think.  This is Foucault.  It is the Panopticon.  It is a system of surveillance.  Why they do it comes afterwards.  The fact that they have the technology is the reason they use it.  They will find something to look for.   Obviously terrorism is still a big thing.  But as soon as you start these kind of operations the priorities grow bigger and it becomes less and less about national security.  They have the ability to gather all this stuff, so they think maybe even further down the line there might be some interesting information which might lead to terrorism or whatever, which becomes the justification for doing it.  And so they gather so much stuff, the majority of which is irrelevant.  I mean the history of intelligence gathering is the gathering of irrelevant information.  And it’s such an empire.  The Americans are now spending not millions, but billions, on this.  And the British now invest more in intelligence gathering since any time since the Second World War.  And the purpose of it?  I don’t really know. 

But sure, it is being driven by technology, but it is being put to political purposes.  So during the Cold War they were monitoring communists and now we know there is a focus on political activists and so on.  So it’s not apolitical is it? 

Well I don’t think the use of technology is ever apolitical.  It’s always political.  At the end of the day it is about fear and it is about control.  They are fearful that people might do something.  That something might happen on their watch.  That something might occur that they might get blamed for.  And they gather this stuff in case something might happen.  In the end it’s a form of control.  I think it’s about power.  It hasn’t really changed very much.  The Americans are driven by fear.  They need a new enemy.

Private security and private intelligence are big business today.  What historically has been the relationship between intelligence agencies and big business?  You mentioned the importance of Cable and Wireless, which suggests that intelligence is historically related to the expansion of imperialism and global trade.

Sometimes they are quite close and sometimes quite distant.  You have some formal relationships, like with Cable and Wireless and Reuters and others – particularly the oil companies.  But there is also evidence that at times the relationship wasn’t that close.  The British wanted to use companies, but the companies were always keeping them at a distance.  They didn’t want to get involved.  Some of the banks and City of London interests were close to British intelligence.  Other times they kept them at arm’s length and had no regard for them. 

More sinister and problematic is the current relationship with corporations like Google and Facebook.  These corporations have a kind of right-wing libertarian philosophy, which you would have thought would mean they wouldn’t engage with governments.   But it turns out they are in bed with them on a lot of this stuff.   Partly it’s because that right-wing libertarian stuff is driven by a desire for transparency, an end to privacy, an end to secrecy and so on; which on one level are fine, but in the end these ideas are being used by these corporations for profit and control.  In a lot of ways they are more dangerous than states.  Because there is no control over what these companies are doing.  They are just like pirates; multi billion pound organisations.  It’s a real problem because people think that they are bit like the library or the Post Office, but in fact these are some of the worst multi-national corporations we’ve had. 

In American there seems to a greater suspicion of intelligence agencies than here in the UK.  Why do you think that is? 

The complete apathy in Britain towards this is amazing and shocking.  I did an interview with a German reporter the other day and he was asking me why no one is reacting to this, because they certainly are in Germany.  People here though are just rolling over and allowing the state and these corporations to do this.  In American, yes, it is somewhat different.  Partly I think it’s because they have a written constitution.  But they also have at times had some good oversight of their intelligence services.  It may not seem it, but in fact there have been some big battles in the US over budgets and activities.  Here there never have been.  There is no real oversight.  What the politicians say is complete nonsense.   They are just rubber stamping what the intelligence agencies do.  None of the politicians are challenging the laws.  The real problem is that the laws the intelligence services operate under were drawn up by the lawyers for MI5 and MI6.  So they were drawn as widely as possible to allow the intelligence services to do whatever they want basically.  So it’s very easy for the Home Secretary to say that GCHQ is operating within the law because the law is so badly drawn. 

Or well drawn from their perspective! 

Yes, very well drawn from their perspective.  It was deliberate. 

So Iraq didn’t have might of an impact on political oversight? 

Not really.  The sting is drawn out of these things by the inquiry process.  Things never get dealt with.  People get bored and by the time things do come out everyone has moved on to other issues.  That’s very much the British way.  The state has been doing these things for a long time.  They know what they are doing.  They know how to manipulate the media and too often the media are willing to go along with it.  The Iraq War is a prime example of that because not a single newspaper challenged the basic intelligence.

Yes, I wanted to ask you about the media. What more historically has been the relationship between the intelligence services and the media?  Because as I understand it a considerable number of journalists are known to have worked with British intelligence during the Cold War. 

Yes, there are a high percentage of foreign correspondents, for instance, who, certainly during the Cold War, collaborated at one level or another with MI6.  Some of that was actually being run as agents, even being paid.  Some of it was doing little odd jobs for them, supplying information.  Every national newspaper had journalists who were doing that.  Since the end of the Cold War, it’s very difficult to know, but I think there’s much less of it.  That is partly down to the fact that the British press is in a poor state and so there are so few correspondents.  All newspapers have cut staff.  An example would be the Express, which I don’t think even has a foreign correspondent.  So there’s nobody left to recruit.  But the central problem is that there has been a cosy relationship between the press and the state since the First World War.  Take the introduction of things like the DA-Notice system, for example, which is still operating and is a form of pre-censorship really.  This is unacceptable to any American journalist, but it still operates here.  Even on the Snowdon stuff we can see that a number of the newspapers are following the government line and they are happy to do that.  One of the interesting things in the current scandal is the attack on the Guardian by other newspapers.   Normally there is kind of an unwritten rule amongst newspapers: you don’t attack each other.  But that’s broken down. 

And presumably the intelligence services are briefing against the Guardian with the other papers? 

Yes they are.  There’s no doubt about that.  And there have clearly been Defence Advisory Notices which have gone out to newspapers telling them not to publish certain information.  Some of it is legitimate.   Publishing the names of agents or whatever is not on.  But the Guardian, as far as I can see, has been very careful. 

Tom Mills is a researcher and PhD candidate at the University of Bath and a co-editor of New Left Project. 

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