Snowden leaks reveal GCHQ’s reliance on NSA money, data

GCHQ center in Cheltenham, EnglandBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | |
Information provided by American defector and former intelligence insider Edward Snowden shows that Britain’s signals intelligence agency is very much the junior partner in an uneven relationship with its American counterpart. Snowden, a former computer expert for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA), has been given political asylum in Russia. In June, he revealed a number of enormous intelligence-collection programs, including PRISM and TEMPORA. The latter is administered by the General Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), Britain’s signals intelligence organization. The program enables the agency to access communications traffic carried through fiber optic cables worldwide. But GCHQ also receives data from PRISM, a massive electronic surveillance program operated by the NSA, which provides access to millions of email and online chat exchanges facilitated by some of the world’s foremost Internet service providers. Because of these arrangements, GCHQ’s access to electronic data increased by 7,000 percent between 2008 and 2012, according to an internal GCHQ document provided to The Guardian newspaper by Snowden. The agency’s immense access to information has propelled it to a leading role within Britain’s intelligence establishment. It currently receives over half of Britain’s £1.9 billion annual intelligence budget, while its employee size is more than twice that of Britain’s domestic (MI5) and external (MI6) intelligence agencies combined. Its headquarters, the so-called “doughnut building” in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, was Europe’s largest single construction project when it was being built in the early 2000s.  But the documents provided by Snowden show that, despite its considerable wealth and access to resources, GCHQ’s intelligence planners are deeply concerned about “being left behind by technology” in the fiber optic age. One internal report highlights “the pressure on the agency to deliver” and warns that “the complexity of [GCHQ’s] mission has evolved to the point where existing mission management capability is no longer fit for purpose”. A major area of anxiety for GCHQ is access to smartphone communications, which involve the use of increasingly sophisticated encryption technology. The same methods employed to hamper phone hackers are posing unprecedented challenges for GCHQ, as the agency finds it difficult to acquire access to the content of communications without the active cooperation of service providers. One internal report leaked by Snowden admits that GCHQ is effectively “playing catch-up”, and bluntly describes the agency’s efforts to exploit cell phone networks as “fragmented [and] uncoordinated”. These concerns seem to have led GCHQ to become increasingly reliant on the NSA in recent years. The Guardian suggests that the documents leaked by Snowden will alarm those who already believe British intelligence agencies are too reliant on their American counterparts. The British paper says that GCHQ appears to receive “tens of millions of pounds” from the NSA each year, and that it has come to depend on these funds in order to sustain its operations. It follows that GCHQ goes out of its way “to keep the Americans happy”, an effort regarded by the agency’s planners as “an overriding priority”, says The Guardian. The paper adds that the possibility of a diminished Anglo-American partnership tops GCHQ’s list of the “most significant concerns for the future”.

4 Responses to Snowden leaks reveal GCHQ’s reliance on NSA money, data

  1. TFH says:

    Snowden downloaded from the NSA networks GCHQ briefing notes, powerpoint presentations and other internal documents.

    From the Guardian article:

    In numerous papers, GCHQ reveals its need to keep the Americans happy, and how it regards this as an overriding priority

    … the papers show GCHQ is not always at ease with itself. There is understandable concern about being left behind by technology

    “The complexity of our mission has evolved to the point where existing mission management capability is no longer fit for purpose.”

    the “customer” the agency frets about most is the NSA

    It seems strange if GCHQ would choose to share these internal notes with its American partner since it shows weakness on it’s own part and given historical rivalries between allied intel agencies, even those from the same country, the English would have to be considered remarkably humble to share these.

    So this does suggest that the NSA keeps a very close eye on GCHQ indeed.

  2. Pete says:


    Re “So this does suggest that the NSA keeps a very close eye on GCHQ indeed.” Yes and by extension the NSA can keep a close eye on GCHQ’s own ordinary UK citizens – 99.9% of whom in no way would be security threats.

    Presumably such US coverage applies to the other three (Australia, Canada, New Zealand) of the “Five Eyes” UKUSA Treaty.

    All in UKUSA Treaty would be obliged to keep pace technically, in specific programs and in other respects with General Alexander’s high funded, politically powerful NSA.

    So what is the cost or opportunity cost of all this activity? Oh – one forgets budgets are also kept secret.

  3. TFH says:


    Yes, but my point is that the internal documents from GCHQ on the subject of NSA were probably not meant for NSA eyes, so the documents quoted in the Guardian article show that NSA spies on GCHQ or at least has the capability to do so since Snowden was able to get his hands on them.

  4. Pete says:

    Actually the estimated NSA budget at 2013 is less than I thought it would be “Aftergood estimates about 14% of the country’s total intelligence budget — or about $10 billion [per year] — goes to the NSA.” Steve Aftergood is director of the government secrecy program at the Federation of American Scientists.

    US$10 billion would be about 1/50th (or less?) of the US DoD’s regular budget of what US$500 billion?

    In terms of opportunity costs when one considers relative lack of exposure to danger that would be involved in humint operations to get some of the NSA information yield the NSA may be a better cost proposition than first thought.

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