I’m not impressed with GCHQ

I am not impressed with GCHQ. I dare say Britain’s main intelligence-gathering centre doesn’t feel the need to impress the likes of me (or probably you), but it could have been more helpful nevertheless.

I emailed GCHQ a few weeks ago about a colleague, Neville Bealing, who died recently aged 83. I was going to say a few words at his funeral in a week’s time, so I asked them politely and somewhat hesitantly if they could confirm that Neville had worked for GCHQ (or its predecessor) about 50 years ago.

He had mentioned to a colleague that he had worked for GCHQ, and it must have been as long ago as the late 1940s or early 50s as he worked for the company I work for as a translator for an amazing 50 years. He retired (reluctantly) only a year or two before his death.

I didn’t expect GCHQ to tell me much; just confirmation that he had worked there would have been enough.

But they didn’t even reply. Not so much as an acknowledgment, not even a computer-generated one. This doesn’t surprise me hugely but it does make me a bit angry. I don’t like being ignored when I ask a polite, reasonable question.

And you would think, or hope, that in this day and age GCHQ would be a bit concerned about PR and regard responding to questions like mine about pretty ancient history as a way of showing a friendly public face.

GCHQ does in fact have a reasonably informative website which gives an email for their Press Office/Public Affairs. So why do they have such an office if they don’t deign to reply to emails sent by the public?

Their website divulges the fact that they employ 5,500 people in a “multi million pound building, provided under PFI [private finance initiative] arrangements, provides state of the art facilities to deliver our essential work.” Not only that, but the building hosts “a range of facilities including a shop, restaurant, deli bar and coffee shops and gymnasium.”

And listen to this: “The shell of each office chair is made from 36 recycled plastic 2 litre pop bottles. Desks and table surfaces are made from 90% recycled wood and all steel products are made from 30% recycled metal.”

So I am not at all clear what reason can there be for refusing to confirm that somebody worked there 50 years ago, or even for saying that for whatever reason they do not wish to confirm or deny…

I can’t help feeling if Neville had worked for the CIA, for example, I would at least have received a reply, and probably a reasonably helpful one at that. The CIA says in its document Strategic Intent 2007-2011 that “the American people…expect us to keep secrecy but not to have anything to hide.” Very healthy. Its website even has a Library and a Freedom on Information Act Electronic Reading Room. Hard to imagine any British intelligence agency having anything like that.

In fact the British security services are exempt from our very own Freedom of Information Act, as MI5’s website makes clear.

MI5, unlike GCHQ (in theory), does not have a press office and directs journalists to the Home Office.

Freedom of information has a lot more meaning in the US, I’m sure, while here, despite a Freedom of Information Act, there is still an obsession with secrecy.

Well, I’m sure GCHQ monitors the blogosphere, so maybe they will take note of my comments.

Oh, as a tribute to Neville I would like to mention his other main claim to fame. He sat on Thomas Hardy‘s knee as a baby. His father was a photographer in Shaftesbury, Dorset, so he must surely have taken a photograph of this great event, but Neville told me had never seen a copy.