LONDON.- Tucked away between a Starbucks cafe and a pub that specializes in fish and chips, an unassuming office building in downtown London has been the secret headquarters to one of the most powerful intelligence agencies in the United Kingdom.
Since 1953 the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has worked to protect the UK’s national security by intercepting communications, employing expert codebreakers and more recently combating cybercrime and terrorism from its now-defunct building on a narrow street near St Jame’s Park.
«As we depart our Palmer Street site after 66 years, we look back on a history full of amazing intelligence, world-leading innovation, and the ingenious people who passed through those secret doors,» Jeremy Fleming, GCHQ Director said in a statement on Friday.
«Then, as now, it’s a history defined by the belief that with the right mix of minds, anything is possible,» Fleming added.
The GCHQ and the experts that walked through the secret doors of its Palmer Street site played a key role during World War II and the Cold War.
The secret history of this red brick and stone building with old factory-style windows was only revealed by the GCHQ once the eavesdropping agency had abandoned the building for another venue.
The only thing that could have given away the building’s true mission was several discreet security cameras on its facade.
The GCHQ has, in recent years, been the source of some controversy after Edward Snowden revealed the so-called Tempora operation: a government-sponsored worldwide mass surveillance exercise that collected data from the Internet of public and private citizens.
Snowden’s investigation revealed that the GCHQ intercepted fiber-optic cables for Internet communications that connected throughout the UK and beyond to the European Union and the United States.
The ambitious project, which was capable of collecting 10 gigabits of data per second, was made up of two key projects with grandiose names: «Mastering the Internet» and «Global Telecoms Exploitation,» according to Snowden.
Ever since the scandal broke, the intelligence agency – which works alongside the MI5 (the UK’s domestic security agency) and MI6 (the foreign intelligence agency) – the GCHQ has launched a campaign to present itself as a more transparent institution.
This year will mark the organization’s centenary and there has been a big drive to share the GCHQ’s history with the British public.
A highlight the spymasters have been keen to celebrate was the end of World War II (1945) which came about after GCHQ codebreakers were able to decipher the coded messages of the German Nazis using the «Enigma» machine.
Mathematician, Alan Turing, one of the godfather’s of modern day computing, was the brains behind the operation which saw thousands of intelligence officers working from Bletchley Park, the secret home of the espionage agency during the war.
After the war, at the beginning of the 1950s, the GCHQ transferred some of its codebreakers to a new venue in western England and reduced its London headquarters significantly although the office in the capital continued to handle the most sensitive data and was where the director of the agency worked from.
It was then that the Department for Work handed over an office block that had been erected just a few minutes on foot from Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Westminster, the political hub of the country.
The GCHQ has since sold the building to a private company and has not yet revealed what its future will hold.
The intelligence organization has also confirmed that its main headquarters will continue to be in the capital but has not revealed where this might be.
Even though the GCHQ still keeps many things under wraps, the drive for transparency meant it became the first spying agency in the UK to launch a Twitter account in 2016.
From that social media account, members of the public can delve into a world of codebreaking and puzzle-solving with the regular tweets that also serve to identify potential candidates to join their team of experts.
Hopefuls, however, do know one thing for certain: should they be chosen to join the legendary service, it won’t be at its Palmer Street offices.EFE-epa