I STEPPED FROM the warmth of our source’s London flat. That February night in 1977, the air was damp and cool, the buzz of traffic muted in this leafy North London suburb, in the shadow of the iconic Alexandra Palace. A fellow journalist and I had just spent three hours inside, drinking Chianti and talking about secret surveillance with our source, and now we stood on the doorstep discussing how to get back to the south coast town where I lived.
Events were about to take me on a different journey. Behind me, sharp footfalls broke the stillness. A squad was running, hard, toward the porch of the house we had left. Suited men surrounded us. A burly middle-aged cop held up his police ID. We had broken “Section 2″ of Britain’s secrecy law, he claimed. These were “Special Branch,” then the elite security division of the British police.
For a split second, I thought this was a hustle. I knew that a parliamentary commission had released a report five years earlier that concluded that the secrecy law, first enacted a century ago, should be changed. I pulled out my journalist identification card, ready to ask them to respect the press.
But they already knew that my companion that evening, Time Out reporter Crispin Aubrey, and I were journalists. And they had been outside, watching our entire meeting with former British Army signals intelligence (Sigint) operator John Berry, who at the time was a social worker.
Aubrey and I were arrested on suspicion of possessing unauthorized information. They said we’d be taken to the local police station. But after being forced into cars, we were driven in the wrong direction, toward the center of London. I became uneasy.
It was soon apparent that the elite squad had no idea where the local police station was. They stopped and asked a taxi to lead them there. We were then locked up overnight, denied bail and sent to London’s Brixton prison.
Aubrey had recorded our interview. During three hours of tapes that the cops took from Aubrey, Berry had revealed spying on Western allies. When the tape was transcribed, every page was stamped “SECRET” in red, top and bottom. Then, with a red felt-tip pen, “Top” was methodically written in front of each “SECRET.”
Our discussion was considered so dangerous that we — two reporters and a social worker — were placed on the top floor of the prison maximum security wing, which guards told us had formerly held terrorists, serial murderers, gang leaders and child rapists. Meanwhile, police stripped my home of every file, every piece of paper I had, and 400 books.
Our case became known as “ABC,” after our surnames: Aubrey, Berry and Campbell. We hoped it would end quickly. We knew that the senior minister responsible, Home Secretary Merlyn Rees, had announced three months before that the “mere receipt of unauthorized information should no longer be an offense.” The day after we were arrested, I was told he was furious to be woken with news that the security agencies had delivered a fait accompli. Historian Richard Aldrich found an official letter from the head of MI5, Britain’s Security Service, saying they considered me at the time the person of the greatest interest to see incarcerated.
In my 40 years of reporting on mass surveillance, I have been raided three times; jailed once; had television programs I made or assisted making banned from airing under government pressure five times; seen tapes seized; faced being shoved out of a helicopter; had my phone tapped for at least a decade; and — with this arrest — been lined up to face up to 30 years imprisonment for alleged violations of secrecy laws. And why do I keep going? Because from the beginning, my investigations revealed a once-unimaginable scope of governmental surveillance, collusion, and concealment by the British and U.S. governments — practices that were always as much about domestic spying during times of peace as they were about keeping citizens safe from supposed foreign enemies, thus giving the British government the potential power to become, as our source that night had put it, a virtual “police state.”
A decade later, in a parliamentary debate, Foreign Secretary David Owen revealed that he was initially against our being prosecuted, but was convinced to go along after being promised that we journalists could be jailed in secret. “Everybody came in and persuaded me that it would be terrible not to prosecute. … I eventually relented. But one of my reasons for doing so was that I was given an absolute promise that the case would be heard in camera [a secret hearing].”
In the face of this security onslaught, the politicians collapsed and agreed we should all be charged with espionage — although there was no suggestion that we wanted to do anything other than write articles. I was alleged to be “a thoroughly subversive man who was quite prepared to publish information which was secret,” my lawyer later wrote in his memoir.
My lawyer saw it differently. “Campbell is a journalist … a ferret not a skunk,” he told the magistrates’ court in Tottenham, North London. But when he inquired about the possibility of a misdemeanor plea and a £50 fine (about $75), he was cut down: “That course might be acceptable for Berry and Aubrey. But the security services want Campbell in prison for a very long time.”
They meant it. In March 1977, one month after our nighttime arrest, we were all charged with breaking Britain’s Official Secrets Act, for the “unlawful receipt of information.” Then we were charged with espionage. Each espionage charge carried a maximum of 14 years. I was also charged with espionage for collecting open source information on U.K. government plans. In total, I faced 30 years.
The interview, and then our arrests, were a first encounter with the power of Government Communications Headquarters, better known by its acronym, GCHQ, Britain’s electronic surveillance agency.
I FIRST HEARD of secret intelligence as a boy. My mother, Mary, a mathematician, often reminisced about her wartime work in a top-secret establishment, including two years working alongside a man they called “the Prof.” She portrayed an awkward, gangly fellow with a stutter who loved long-distance running and mushrooms he foraged from local woods that no one would touch — and who was a math genius “out of her league.” The Prof was Alan Turing, the wartime breaker of the German Enigma code, inventor of the modern computer, and hero of the recent Oscar-winning film, The Imitation Game.
Almost four decades passed before she found out for whom she and the Prof had been working. She had kept a war souvenir, a flirtatious poem given to her by a British general who visited her radio listening station. The poem inspired her army boss to joke that the general intended to propose. When official war records were finally released, we discovered that the general had been the assistant chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service.
I first stumbled across GCHQ’s surveillance network while at school. On a bike outing in Scotland with another science student, we spotted a large hilltop radio station. We pedaled up to find fences, locked gates and a meaningless sign hung on the wire that read, “CSOS Hawklaw.” Nearby, we found a ubiquitous British chippie, a fish-and-chip shop, and asked the proprietor, “What do they do there?”
“They never talk,” we were told. “It’s a secret government place.”
Armed with these leads, in May 1976 I wrote “The Eavesdroppers,” the first-ever story about GCHQ, alongside American journalist Mark Hosenball, for London’s then-radical entertainment magazine Time Out.
I was later told by high-level government contacts that I had been under surveillance while reporting “The Eavesdroppers.” The “watchers,” from MI5, were first rate. I never spotted anything. But while following me and tapping my phone, British security learned an uncomfortable truth: All of the sources for my secret information were Americans, whose free speech was not controlled by British laws.
“The Eavesdroppers” put GCHQ in view as Britain’s largest spy network organization. “With the huge U.S National Security Agency as partner, [GCHQ] intercepts and decodes communications throughout the world,” I wrote.
The very existence of GCHQ and the Sigint network were then closely guarded secrets. My article was based on open sources and help from ex-NSA whistleblowers. One was Perry Fellwock, a former U.S. Air Force analyst who helped expose the scale of illegal NSA surveillance during Watergate.
My co-author, Mark Hosenball, a U.S. citizen (and now an investigative reporter for Reuters), was quickly slated for deportation as a threat to national security. He faced a security inquiry and then expulsion, knowing only that he was accused of having “sought information for publication which would be harmful for state security.” The ban was lifted more than 20 years ago.
One part of our article that caused concern was a centerpiece map (compiled from phone book data) showing NSA and GCHQ monitoring stations scattered across Britain. One of the locations I identified, Menwith Hill Station, a tapping center in the heart of England, has now been revealed in Edward Snowden’s papers as a global center for planned cyberwar. We also reported that electronic versions of the Enigma cypher were being sold to developing countries by European firms such as Crypto AG of Switzerland for decades before those nations knew Britain had cracked the code.
The day after publication, GCHQ relayed my article around the world. At one major overseas center, I was told that the local station chief came into a morning meeting, incoherent with rage and “frothing at the mouth,” according to a security official present. Unable to explain in grammatical sentences what had upset him, the chief pulled out and hurled down a telegraphed copy of my article.
After Hosenball was ordered to leave Britain in 1977 for his part in writing the piece, new whistleblowers came forward. One was John Berry, who had worked for GCHQ in Cyprus.
Berry revealed in a letter to Britain’s National Council for Civil Liberties, the equivalent of the ACLU, that “GCHQ … monitors the radio networks of so-called friendly countries and even the commercial signals of U.K. companies. … The extent of intelligence activities … and the resources which the British Government deploys in this area are largely unknown. … The apparatus could transform Britain into a police state overnight.” That is what led us to Berry’s flat that unforgettable February evening.
BEFORE THE ABC trial, GCHQ demanded that its key witness have his identity hidden “to protect national security.” He was to be “Lieutenant Colonel A.” When magistrates rejected this, a “Colonel B” was sent instead. From reading open army journals, I already knew who “Colonel B” was. In one article, he was named as Colonel Hugh Johnstone and identified as “the Don of the communications underworld.”
Johnstone’s name quickly leaked, provoking prosecutions for contempt of court against editors and our journalists’ union. Johnstone was then named again during BBC live radio broadcasts from Parliament. Overnight, the top-secret GCHQ witness became the most famous officer in the British Army.
As our trial started, witness after witness from security sites tried to claim that openly published information was in fact secret. In a typical interchange, one Sigint unit chief was shown a road sign outside his base:
Q: Is that the name of your unit?
A: I cannot answer that question, that is a secret.
Q: Is that the board which passers-by on the main road see outside your unit’s base?
Q: Read it out to the jury, please.
A: I cannot do that. It is a secret.
Official panic set in. The foreign secretary who GCHQ had bullied into having us accused of spying wrote that “almost any accommodation is to be preferred” to allowing our trial to continue. A Ministry of Defense report in September 1978, now released, disclosed that the “prosecuting counsel has come to the view that there have been so many published references to the information Campbell has acquired and the conclusions he has drawn from it that the chances of success with [the collection charge] are not good.”
My lawyer overheard the exasperated prosecutor saying that he would allow the government to continue with the espionage charge against me “over [his] dead body.” The judge, a no-nonsense Welsh lawyer, was also fed up with the secrecy pantomime. He demanded the government scrap the espionage charges. They did.
That left only our taped discussion with Berry — which was mainly filled with trivia about his military life. Johnstone then said that a particular revelation — information that GCHQ targeted NATO ally Turkey — could cause “exceptionally grave damage,” and could disrupt the NATO alliance. Berry had indeed told us that after a coup in Greece, “We knew that a Turkish invasion fleet had sailed [to invade Cyprus].” Johnstone assumed Berry knew this from top-secret intercepts. In fact, Berry’s military record showed he had been in England when the Turks had moved on Cyprus. Johnstone was shown a newspaper article Berry had seen while in England that reported the sailing of the Turkish fleet. Berry had told us only what he’d seen in a newspaper. But what “Colonel B” said had given away a damaging secret — spying on allies.
The error was catastrophic. I watched as Johnstone slumped in the witness box. He then descended into “gloomy confusion,” according to a watching reporter. He condemned articles published in his own army unit’s magazine as illegal, and finally confessed, “To be frank, I am not certain what is a secret and what isn’t.”
We walked free. The judge ruled that we should face no punishment for technically breaking the discredited secrecy law, which was repealed 11 years later.
In February 1980, with help from new whistleblowers, I published the location of the U.K.’s secret national phone-tapping center, “Tinkerbell.” This time, politicians and the national press put the focus where it belonged. The government admitted that there was then no legal basis for wiretapping in Britain. They were forced to legislate to regulate wiretapping four years later.
That same year, new sources told me that a secret NSA base in England — Menwith Hill Station (MHS) — had been identified by 1970s congressional intelligence investigators as the larger of two NSA centers tapping telephones in Europe.
I teamed up with the British Sunday Times investigative reporter Linda Melvern, and we traveled to the U.S., where intelligence officials confirmed the role of the base. One ex-NSA analyst told us he had documents giving the base authority for “tapping the telephone lines to Europe.” A former British military officer who had visited Menwith said, “It intercepts telephone and other communications to and from the United States and Europe.”
Some of our sources suspected that Menwith Hill’s location and powerful access arrangements might have facilitated its central role in the unlawful secret surveillance of U.S. citizens’ communications uncovered in the 1970s, when NSA had helped the FBI target civil rights activists and other protesters.
Our best source — impeccable — was a top intelligence consultant who then still worked with NSA. He told us he had officially inspected the site and confirmed, “for sure,” its elaborate tapping facilities. This whistleblower, whose identity has never before been revealed, was Oliver G. Selfridge, a founder of the field of artificial intelligence and a member of NSA’s Scientific Advisory Board until 1993.
We were discreetly introduced to Selfridge in a downtown Washington bar by a colleague, who drove us around the National Mall and the city sights in darkness. Selfridge told us that powerful cables connected Menwith to the tapping network, and we should “go look for them.”
We raced back home — and confirmed the tip. We found and photographed an umbilical link between the NSA base and the national and international communications network. We suspected we were looking at the biggest tap on the planet, and titled our report “The Billion Dollar Phone Tap.”
Back at the Sunday Times newsroom, we celebrated. But the editor who had commissioned the investigation expressed concerns about exposing secrets without specific evidence of wrongdoing. He wanted to lead with a report about U.S. spies helping Britain fight Irish terrorists. We believed we had uncovered a story of mass surveillance.
Instead, we published in the small-circulation left-leaning weekly New Statesman, where I was working as a reporter. Although reported by the Washington Post, and triggering an editorial in the London Times, the story didn’t have the impact we hoped for. But it did result in an important contact with author Jim Bamford, who was reporting on the NSA. As Bamford recounted in an article for The Intercept last year, it was the Sunday Times reporter Melvern who ended up helping him protect material on a secret Department of Justice investigation into NSA in the 1970s. (After leaving the Sunday Times, Melvern became a prominent investigator of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.)
Jim Bamford and I each worked mainly from open sources. We stayed in touch and shared some significant leads, prompting the author of the first major book on GCHQ, Richard Aldrich, to write, “Together Duncan Campbell and James Bamford confirmed a fundamental truth; that there are no secrets, only lazy researchers.”
SEVEN YEARS LATER, in February 1987, police Special Branch teams were sent to search my home and office for a third time. This time the trigger was a documentary program the BBC had asked me to make, called “Secret Society.” My program revealed that GCHQ had violated financial accountability to try and gain “independence” from NSA. Wanting its own space program, GCHQ had evaded legislators to get authority to build a $700 million all-British spy satellite — code-named “Zircon.”
Zircon was intended to launch into a “geostationary” orbit; from there, a giant antenna would unfold to collect signals from Asia, Europe and Africa. It was an ambitious project, but because of the tiny number of people who knew about Zircon, I had no documents to use to support the story.
Former scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defense, Sir Ronald Mason, did know about Zircon. I mentioned the name at the end of an innocuous interview question. His mouth dropped — and stayed open. He recovered his composure and said, “I can’t talk to you about that, I’m afraid.” He didn’t need to.
Under intense pressure from the government, BBC Director General Alasdair Milne agreed to ban my program about Zircon. I then arranged to screen the film inside Parliament. My idea was to distract the censors and pull GCHQ off track while we got the Zircon story out in print in the New Statesman magazine.
At the last minute, government attorneys rushed to obtain court orders. The afternoon before publication, they suddenly arrived at our magazine offices, armed with an order to gag me. They were shown to the elevator while I raced down the stairs, jumped on my bicycle and disappeared. The magazine’s production manager left for a secret location, carrying emergency funds to pay new printers in case our normal printers were blocked.
The next morning, as the New Statesman hit newsstands, I went early to Parliament to meet a friend and supporter, an MP named Robin Cook. He led me to a sanctuary in Parliament, where I could stay long enough to avoid being served by the authorities and get our story out safely. Meanwhile, the mood in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s office reportedly went “incandescent.” Her rage was unleashed. Police raids began.
They spent days searching the New Statesman’s offices. The government then ordered a raid on the BBC itself. On a Saturday night, in front of cameras, police wheeled out carts containing our program tapes. News and images of the raid on the BBC traveled around the world, bolstering the image of British secrecy gone mad.
Two weeks after we published the New Statesman story, BBC Director General Milne was sacked by BBC governors. I was not prosecuted. My program aired a year later. Zircon itself was never completed or launched.
Behind the Zircon scandal was deception. The government had previously been caught hiding weapons expenditures using false accounting. The government then promised to report, in secret if needed, on any project that cost more than £250 million (about $400 million). No sooner was this promise made than it was broken for GCHQ’s purposes. Operating Zircon would also have raised GCHQ’s costs by one third.
IN NOVEMBER 1987, San Francisco’s Center for Investigative Reporting asked me over to discuss the Zircon program. My trip led to probably the most important surveillance story I have uncovered. I went to Sunnyvale to meet Margaret Newsham, a former Lockheed Martin employee, to hear about unconstitutional NSA activity.
I drove south on California Route 101. In Sunnyvale, close to where Google’s campus now stands, the highway runs past a huge windowless “Blue Cube” that controlled the NSA’s constellation of surveillance satellites, run by Lockheed and closed in 2010.
We sat on Newsham’s porch. She was a computer system manager who had worked for NSA contractor Lockheed for seven years before being forced out after challenging corruption. She had been assigned to Menwith Hill in 1978 to manage NSA databases, including something known as Project ECHELON.
Newsham explained that ECHELON was an automated computer-driven system for sifting and sorting all types of international civilian communications intercepted from satellites — mainly operated by U.S. companies.
The scale of the operation she described took my breath away (this was 1988, remember). The NSA and its partners had arranged for everything we communicated to be grabbed and potentially analyzed. ECHELON was at the heart of a massive, billion-dollar expansion of global electronic surveillance for the 21st century, she explained. She feared the scale of automated surveillance. “Its immensity almost defies comprehension. … It is important for the truth to come out,” she said. “I don’t believe we should put up with being controlled by Big Brother.”
While sitting inside Building 36D at Menwith Hill Station, Newsham had been invited to listen on headphones to a live call from inside the U.S. Senate. She recognized the voice of Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond, and immediately realized the NSA had gone off track. “Constitutional laws had been broken,” she told me.
She explained how she had provided evidence to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Investigators told her they had issued subpoenas, and had asked to see plans for ECHELON. But nothing had happened.
She handed me some of the plans for ECHELON. In technical jargon, one described a basic tool kit for surveillance — the “commonality of automated data processing equipment (ADPE) in the ECHELON system.” Others described the ECHELON “Dictionary” database, the heart of the system holding target groups of keywords. “Dictionary” ran on networks of mini-computers. Newsham had managed these networks. Some plans listed equipment she had helped deploy for a secret project code-named “CARBOY II.” She did not know where CARBOY was.
Back in Britain, I matched Newsham’s plans to other clues. Pictures of GCHQ’s base at Bude in southwest England showed two satellite tracking dishes, pointing directly at Western satellites called Intelsat.
Intelsat, the first commercial communications satellite (COMSAT) network, linked people and businesses around the globe; for example, it even relayed the moon landings live. It started in 1965. From planning records and a press report, I deduced that GCHQ had planned to intercept Intelsat from Bude, beginning in 1966.
Author Jim Bamford provided me with letters from 1969 between NSA and GCHQ that he’d obtained, showing that the NSA had helped GCHQ bully the British into building the Bude station. A new GCHQ source told me that the NSA paid for the station under a secret agreement — and that the job was given to the Brits because of fears about U.S. communications laws.
I figured that a second ECHELON site would be needed to complete global coverage, intercepting a third Intelsat satellite over the Pacific Ocean. Jim Bamford and I both found the site — built in America, spying on U.S. communications with Asia. In November 1970, a Washington state newspaper revealed Department of Defense plans for a so-called “research station” in Yakima, about 150 miles from Seattle. I obtained photographs. They showed it was targeting the Pacific Intelsat. At the dawn of the era of mass surveillance, almost 50 years ago, the ECHELON stations at Bude and Yakima were the global mass surveillance system.
I had also seen confidential papers from the Watergate investigations that revealed that GCHQ had fed into the NSA’s unlawful SHAMROCK program of international surveillance on satellites and cables, and that this had supported unlawful FBI surveillance on U.S. dissidents and civil rights campaigners. The evidence thus showed that the British had been paid by the NSA to build a station that spied on satellites run by the U.S. and carrying mostly Western communications, and that GCHQ had supported unconstitutional surveillance of U.S citizens.
When I published the ECHELON story in August 1988, it got little mainstream attention. It was ignored for a decade, downplayed by many as European paranoia.
In 1999, at last, ECHELON attracted the concern of Europe’s Parliament, which commissioned an investigation. My report, “Interception Capabilities 2000,” outlined what ECHELON was and was not. With ECHELON under investigation in Europe, Margaret Newsham decided to reveal her identity as the whistleblower, and retold her story on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
The European Parliament then mandated extensive action against mass surveillance. Their recommendations were passed in full on September 5, 2001. Six days later, the Twin Towers came down. Any plans for limiting mass surveillance were buried with the victims of 9/11, and never formally published. But proof of ECHELON has become available.
In December 2014, I asked fellow Scottish journalist and Intercept reporter Ryan Gallagher to check Snowden’s documents. Was there evidence of ECHELON?
There was; the documents included details of the “ECHELON agreement” and more — a batch of GCHQ and NSA documents confirming what whistleblower Margaret Newsham had revealed 27 years ago. ECHELON was indeed “a system targeting communications satellites” that began nearly 50 years ago.
“In 1966, NSA established the FROSTING program, an umbrella program for the collection and processing of all communications emanating from communication satellites,” according to a January 2011 newsletter published by the NSA’s Yakima Research Station. “FROSTING’s two sub-programs were TRANSIENT, for all efforts against Soviet satellite targets, and ECHELON, for the collection and processing of INTELSAT communications.”
Another report, published in NSA’s “SID Today” newsletter in 2005, stated that “yes, there is an ECHELON system,” and noted that the “extensive story of ECHELON would be part of the forthcoming history initiative.” A 2010 GCHQ report noted that “historically, NSA has been a large source of funding for COMSAT [interception]. Many current COMSAT assets were purchased by NSA and are supported by GCHQ under the Echelon Agreement.”
The documents also confirmed the role of ECHELON Dictionaries as “text keyword scanning engines.” Other previously published Snowden documents show that CARBOY, whose expansion plans Newsham gave me, was a “primary” foreign satellite collection operation at Bude.
The most shocking part of ECHELON, confirmed by the Snowden documents, is that it was built to target Intelsat satellites, which in the early years were used primarily by Western countries; the United States was the largest owner and user. The Soviet Union, China and their allies didn’t have ground stations, nor the equipment to connect to Intelsat, until years later.
The Yakima site, which started operating in May 1973, was “established under the ECHELON program to collect and process INTELSAT communications during the height of the Cold War,” reads a July 2012 newsletter published by the NSA’s Yakima Research Station.
One more GCHQ document linked Edward Snowden’s archive back to where my journey first began, with John Berry and the ABC case. The GCHQ station in Cyprus where Berry served has the code name “SOUNDER.” Here, too, NSA was heavily involved, according to the document: “Under the ECHELON Agreement, NSA provides 50% of the funding for the SOUNDER Comsat facility.”
“Don’t wrestle in the mud with the pigs. They like it, and you both get dirty,” an NSA employee wrote in a newsletter.
The NSA’s “SID Today” newsletter concludes by recounting that the agency showed arrogance in evading public scrutiny. It describes how ECHELON “caught the ire of Europeans,” prompting a European Parliament investigation in 2000. The NSA newsletter writer wrote that when a European delegation came to Washington to visit NSA and other agencies, they were snubbed and their appointments were cancelled. “Our interests, and our SIGINT partners’ interests, were protected throughout the ordeal,” reads the report.
NSA claimed that the Parliament investigation “reflected not only that NSA played by the rules, with congressional oversight, but that those characteristics were lacking when the [European delegation] applied its investigatory criteria to other European nations.” According to the NSA writer, the Europeans were “pigs” wading in filth. “The “pig rule” applied when dealing with this tacky matter: “Don’t wrestle in the mud with the pigs. They like it, and you both get dirty.”
Attitudes like this have made the secret dirty world of electronic mass surveillance difficult to expose, and more difficult to get changed. Even today, neither GCHQ nor NSA will comment on ECHELON or other specific issues raised in the Snowden documents. (“It is long standing policy that we do not comment on intelligence matters,” GCHQ said in a statement.)
Yet change has happened, and at increasing speed.
In May 2015, two years after Edward Snowden’s revelations were first published, I was invited on behalf of a former “C” — chief of the U.K.’s Secret Intelligence Service — to co-introduce a conference on intelligence, security and privacy. Nearly three decades after almost going to prison for allegedly exposing GCHQ’s secrets, my partner in starting the conference was the agency’s newly appointed director, Robert Hannigan.
No one present argued against greater openness. Thanks to Edward Snowden and those who courageously came before, the need for public accountability and review has become unassailable.
Documents published with this article: