By Gordon Carrera
The Sunday Times
March 28, 2010
Tucked away on the outskirts of Cheltenham is a vast circular structure
wrapped in razor wire. Getting inside requires passing through layer
after layer of ever-tightening security. Everyone in the town knows what
it is - Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) - but few secrets
of its work emerge.
With about 5,500 employees, GCHQ is Britain's largest but least
well-known intelligence agency. Its mission is to eavesdrop on global
communications, hunting for the terrorist phone call, Taliban radio
traffic or a telling email from a foreign government.
GCHQ operates in a hermetically sealed bubble of security. But the
building - known as the doughnut because it is round with a hole in the
middle - is open and airy. Casually dressed people stroll down the main
thoroughfare, "the street", chat in coffee bars or work in open-plan
offices. Signs for "serious crime" and "Asia-Pacific team" hint at the
breadth of their work.
Intruders are unusual in this closed world. As I am escorted around, a
voice comes across the PA system: "Blinds facing 'the street' in blocks
A and B should be closed immediately." A glance through a window might
reveal something secret.
GCHQ's director, Iain Lobban, is keen to show that it is accountable to
the public but warns: "I don't want to tell you precisely what I can and
can.t do in terms of exploiting communications because I would see my
adversaries ... move to different communications behaviour."
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