LONDON – The activities of GCHQ, Britain’s secret eavesdropping agency, have come under intense scrutiny since former U.S. analyst Edward Snowden said it was one of the main players in a global web of telecommunications surveillance.
GCHQ is at the heart of Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States when it comes to spying, according to Snowden’s blizzard of leaks.
The Government Communications Headquarters — a giant, ring-shaped building nicknamed “the doughnut” — is situated in the spa town of Cheltenham in southwest England.
Computer specialist Snowden, 30, worked for the U.S. National Security Agency in 2012 when he downloaded a vast cache of NSA documents, including 50,000 about GCHQ.
The material from the fugitive, now living in Russia under temporary asylum, has been published in various newspapers, with The Guardian leading the way in Britain.
The documents claim the NSA was secretly funding GCHQ to the tune of £100 million ($160 million) over the last three years.
David Ormand, GCHQ’s director from 1996 to 1997, did not confirm that figure but admitted that the U.S. and Britain were mutually beneficial partners.
“We have the brains; they have the money,” Ormand told BBC radio. “It’s a collaboration that’s worked very well.”
Eric Denece, a former intelligence analyst who is now director of the French Center for Research on Information, said GCHQ, which employs 5,500 people, was “basically 10 times smaller than the NSA and has twice the size of France’s capacity.”
In terms of budget, GCHQ receives three times the amount France receives, but is dwarfed by the U.S. center, he said.
One of Snowden’s revelations was that Britain was running a secret Internet monitoring station in the Middle East, intercepting phone calls and online traffic, with the information processed and passed to GCHQ.
The report claimed it is part of a £1 billion ($1.6 billion) surveillance project code named “Tempora,” whose aims include “mastering the Internet.”
Based on Snowden’s leaks, The Independent newspaper said Britain had a listening post on the roof of its embassy in Berlin.
GCHQ also tapped into more than 200 fiber-optic telecommunications cables, including trans-Atlantic ones, and was handling 600 million “telephone events” each day, according to Snowden.
“They are worse than the U.S.,” Snowden reportedly told The Guardian.
Called to appear before a parliamentary committee earlier this month in response to the Snowden leaks, GCHQ Director Iain Lobban insisted the agency was not conducting snooping en masse on the British public.
He said they were looking for “needles in the haystack,” not the hay itself.
“We do not spend our time listening to the telephone calls or reading the emails of the majority,” he said.
Former chief Omand told the BBC: “GCHQ is primarily a foreign intelligence agency. It is not a domestic intelligence agency.”
Snowden’s documents showed that the amount of personal data available to GCHQ from Internet and mobile phone traffic had increased by 7,000 percent in the past five years — but 60 percent of all Britain’s “refined” intelligence still appeared to come from the NSA.
GCHQ and the NSA work together under the UKUSA Agreement, formed in 1946 between Britain and the United States. Canada, Australia and New Zealand soon joined, forming what is called the “Five Eyes” electronic eavesdropping alliance.
A former British spy said on condition of anonymity that cooperation in eavesdropping dates back as far as World War I, and constitutes one of the chief pillars of the so-called special relationship between London and Washington.
“Cooperation between the two countries, particularly, in sigint (signals intelligence), is so close that it becomes very difficult to know who is doing what,” he said.
“That’s not sinister . . . it’s just organizational mess.”
Denece said there was “task-sharing” between British and U.S. intelligence services.
He cited the two Group of 20 meetings in Britain in 2009, when the United States spied on Russian President Dmitry Medvedev while the British spied on the Turks and the South Africans, according to Snowden’s documents.
The expert said the Americans were in charge of “intercepting bandwidth and satellite eavesdropping,” while “listening on the ground and computer interception is done by the British.”
GCHQ has made no direct comment on the allegations.