Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Official Secrets



I have just had a major memory flash back. The Intercept has published an article by Duncan Campbell "GCHQ and Me: My Life Unmasking British Eavesdroppers". It was partly very familiar since I read the journals that Campbell worked for - as well as the extensive coverage of the ABC trial. And of course lots of background and since revealed secrets and substantiation that were kept secret at the time. 

I was a local government officer working in planning and transportation. It never occurred to me that any of this stuff would impact me, but then Mrs Thatcher abolished the GLC and I had to find re-employment. That came to be as a Civil Servant at the Department of Transport (DTp) at Marsham Street, SW1. And that meant the first thing I had to do was sign the Official Secrets Act. In the days before governments pretended to support Freedom of Information, everything that happened inside a Ministry was considered secret. This grab all approach was introduced at the beginning of the First World War and had not been changed since (we are talking about 1985 - 1988).

In Duncan Campbell's article he describes the ludicrous situation of those called to give evidence against him

As our trial started, witness after witness from security sites tried to claim that openly published information was in fact secret. In a typical interchange, one Sigint unit chief was shown a road sign outside his base:
Q: Is that the name of your unit?
A: I cannot answer that question, that is a secret.
Q: Is that the board which passers-by on the main road see outside your unit’s base?
A: Yes.
Q: Read it out to the jury, please.
A: I cannot do that. It is a secret.
So if I told you that at my workplace there was a staff canteen - we would both be guilty of an offence under the Act. I have passed information to you - and you have received it.

The following information would therefore also fall under that Act. Our office was not open to the public. No-one could be admitted without showing an official pass. And if by chance you had picked up such a pass - say if it had been accidentally dropped in the street - you would not be able to tell what it was. Or if you recognised it as an Official Pass there was no way for you to tell who it had been issued to or where it might be useful. The offices inside the building were not normally locked but they had cupboards and filing cabinets that could be locked. There were also key boxes which had combination locks where keys to conventional locks could be stored. Combinations were a complex series of numbers and we were forbidden from writing them down anywhere. But there was no information on any door that might give a clue to the uninitiated what might go on behind it - unless it said "Ladies" or "Emergency Exit". Not even - and I do not exaggerate - "First Aid".

One morning I came to work and was summoned to see the Under Secretary, who formally informed me that there had been a serious breach of security and I was required to see - um, somebody. I mean they did tell me her name and a job title, but frankly I did not believe either. At one time I had worked near St James's Park, and one of the neighbouring buildings was known by all to be used by some kind of intelligence outfit. The building was anonymous. There was no brass plate outside. Ian Fleming in his Bond novels suggested that MI6 pretended to be a company Universal Exports. That may have been true at one time but wasn't then. My Dad, as a Clerk in the Public Control Department  of the London County Council in 1939, looked after vehicle registration documents. He was able to easily determine that some vehicles which seemed to be involved in laundry collection and delivery were actually engaged in clandestine activities. He, of course, kept this information to himself until long after the war was over. But it seemed to me then, and still does, that if someone tells you they work for Government Security - they may well not be especially truthful. About anything at all.

I asked for one of my colleagues to be present when I met the security woman. Neither of us were permitted to take notes.  Apparently, there was a bunch of spooks who were employed to wander around inside government offices checking on the effectiveness of the security arrangements. And they had looked into my office desk diary and tried some of the phone numbers I had written down for contacts, and one of those numbers worked to open a combination lock on a key box in a nearby office. Not in my office, somewhere else. That produced keys that opened cabinets which contained information some of which was classified "confidential". Such documents were subject to special handling and storage arrangements. Hardly any of them came across my desk. It did not matter that my colleagues and I had devised a simple way to retrieve the combination that we actually needed that had nothing to do with diaries or phone numbers - and opened a different set of file drawers to the ones the spooks had got open.

So I was given a formal reprimand. Then she smiled: "Not that we think the Russians are especially interested in the new parking rates for the City of Westminster."

I didn't like to tell her that I had no idea we were being consulted about that. It was a municipal matter and well beyond our control. Indeed our attempts to influence the City in how they controlled parking were going exactly nowhere as there simply had not been time to set up adequate procedures before the GLC was abolished. Something I did know something about, and might well have been why they decided to give me a job, but no-one had ever bothered to talk to me about.

I'm afraid that always coloured my reaction to any of the revelations about the security and intelligence community. It always seemed to me that anything that happened in any government office was much more readily explicable by the cock-up theory than the conspiracy theory. Yes, SIGINT probably did get huge amounts of material from unauthorised wiretaps. The problem was they were unable to sort the few bits of real hard intelligence from the vast amounts of dross - or even to stitch together the good bits into a narrative that anyone actually paid attention to.   And subsequently I have read both revelations from those victimised by this system and the counter story of those who try to continue to persuade us that any of this is really necessary.  And I know who I prefer to believe. Duncan Campbell and Edward Snowden seem to me to be on the right track.

By the way, at the time I did expect a bit more questioning about my activities in what had been a Communist Country and which subsequently became a grisly killing field. But no-one seemed interested in that either.

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