American intelligence sources have started to leak details of a security crisis at the Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham. They refer to “the most damaging Soviet penetration of Western security since the second world war.”
The Government now faces a fierce attack over security at the base, where 10,000 staff process material intercepted from listening posts around the world. The operation is run jointly by Britain and America with support from other Western governments.
American concern is echoed in an interview with the Guardian by Mr Alex Lawrie, who worked as a linguist at the base for 22 years before retiring last December. He says security is “just about good enough to fend off a well-meaning drunk.”
Mr Lawrie has described a series of security lapses at the base and criticised internal security officers for ignoring early warnings and being more concerned with ritual than efficiency.
Both the US State Department in Washington and Downing Street refused to comment yesterday on the American intelligence leaks, which appeared in the New York Times. The Labour MP for Hartlepool, Mr Ted Leadbitter, who exposed former Soviet agent Anthony Blunt, called on the Prime Minister to make an immediate statement.
According to the New York Times, British intelligence officers have told their American counterparts that Moscow has been receiving a stream of highly sensitive information about British and American interception of Russian communications for nearly 15 years.
The paper reported that the Soviet Union had been able to discover which of their messages were being decoded, as a result of which they changed radio frequencies, switched codes and took other counter-measures to protect information about their military, economic and political activity.
“You can never tell for sure what led the Russians to change coding systems or to switch to different channels,” one senior US intelligence source told the paper. “It’s what you don’t know in a case like this which scares you the most.”
The leak has apparently been inspired by American frustration at the refusal of British intelligence to provide a comprehensive report on the extent of Russian penetration. Their frustration is heightened by the fact that GCHQ is supposed to run in tandem with the American National Security Agency.
In his interview with the Guardian, Mr Lawrie said he had often warned of weak security: “I always had the impression that the Russians knew a great deal more about GCHQ than I did. It’s such a huge place. It’s inconceivable that the information wouldn’t get out. Infiltration seems to be par for the course.”
He cited one occasion when a team of unvetted decorators were given the run of the base at night while they worked. Staff discovered that they were rummaging through their desks and stealing personal possessions such as cigarettes and books.
“We complained and we were told that security were not responsible for personal possessions. But that wasn’t the point. We couldn’t seem to get it through to them that this was a dreadful breach of security.”
One employee has told the Guardian that he used to tear the blank paper off the ends of top secret computer print-outs and take them home to use as writing paper. “I have taken out stacks.” he said. “It would have been just as easy to take out the rest of the sheet which has got classified information printed out on it.”
Base security starts with the vetting of staff when they apply to join. The process is supposed to be repeated every five years, but a backlog of work means the period is often longer. “You have to fill in a form which asks if you have any communist or fascist sympathies,” said Mr Lawrie. “Then you get interviewed by a security officer who asks you about your political affiliations and what newspapers you read. They don’t like it if you read the Guardian or Private Eye. Presumably, if you’re working for the Russians you don’t bother mentioning it.”
Inside the base, staff are constantly reminded of the need to be discreet. The message is reinforced by films, posters and occasional memos, particularly when newspaper revelations about the base are expected. Sometimes staff have been warned not to visit certain pubs or cafes.
Other employees have spoken of a system known as Personnel Security Supervision, an attempt to tighten staff discretion which was condemned by Civil Service unions who regarded it as a gross invasion of privacy and a breach of natural justice.
Under the system, supervisors were expected to report rumours of “unconventional activity” such as gambling or promiscuity without telling the employee concerned and without looking for proof. Some supervisors refused to cooperate. Others agreed and then ignored the system because they found it repugnant.
In addition to these staff security procedures, the base also uses a range of measures to restrict physical access. All staff carry a pass with their photograph attached. These have to be shown to security guards at the base gates. Mr Lawrie says the system is inefficient. “The pass photo is changed about every 10 years,” he said. “You can grow a beard or shave one off. There was a man who got in with his wife’s pass. There’s no difficulty in that. If you go in in a car, you just have to slow down and hold the pass up to the window. It’s not a close check.”
Once in the building, normal security clearance gives staff access to 95 per cent of the base with the result that one mole could expect to gather information from nearly every department in the base, not just his own.
Paperwork is supposed to be logged and checked under a system called End Product Control. Mr Lawrie said: “It is supposed to keep track of important papers, but only some copies are covered by it. So different copies of a ‘controlled’ document can just stay unchecked.”
Mr Lawrie, who is a Labour councillor in Cheltenham, believes that the central weakness of the base security system is the reluctance of the security officers to consult staff about the necessary procedures.