GCHQ's secret space programme dream, the BBC, and more raids by police
Seven years later, in February 1987, Special Branch police teams were sent to search my home and office for a third time. This time the trigger was a six-part programme the BBC had asked me to make, Secret Society. The programme revealed that GCHQ had violated financial accountability to try and gain “independence” from the NSA. Wanting their own space program, GCHQ had evaded legislators to get authority to build a $700m all-British spy satellite codenamed Zircon.
Zircon was to have been launched into a "geostationary" orbit, from where a giant antenna would unfold to collect signals from Asia, Europe and Africa. It was an ambitious project. Because of the tiny number of people who knew about Zircon, I had no documents to use to support the story.
Former defense scientific advisor 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 programme 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.
Gagged by a desperate administration
At the last minute, government attorneys rushed to obtain court orders. The afternoon before publication, government lawyers suddenly arrived at our magazine offices, armed with a court order to gag us. 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.
Next morning, as the New Statesman hit the newsstands, I went early to Parliament to meet a friend and supporter, an MP called Robin Cook. He led me to a sanctuary in Parliament, where I could stay long enough for our story to get out safely. Meanwhile, the temperature in the 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 programme tapes. News of the raid on the BBC went around the world, bolstering the image of British secrecy gone mad. Two weeks after we published the story in the New Statesman, BBC Director General Milne was sacked by the BBC governors. I was not prosecuted. The programme 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 expenditure using false accounting. They then promised to report, in secret if needed, on any project costing 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.