They arrived without warning in José’s office. A high court judge (retired), a policewoman from Operational Security, and a clear implication of illegal intercepts.
The meeting had been titled as a catchup with the head of GCHQ Human Resources, but he was sitting silently at the far end of the table near the only decoration: a picture of the Queen. Above the picture a single long window stretched the width of the room, but it was covered in a dark grey film that defeating microwave intercepts.
Is it something I’ve done? José asked himself. As head of a prestigious department in the GCHQ he’d seen too much over the years, he had made decisions that he regretted, and often he had only a partial glimpse of what his various teams were doing.
The policewoman opened her notebook. It was dainty and in complete contradiction to her appearance. ‘This is about your Kalahari team,’ she said.
José had named his research teams after African deserts. Finding good intelligence amongst the deluge of electronic intercepts was like searching for a diamond in a desert.
‘Kalahari’s mission is to find the accomplices to Russian GRU assassins. It’s a top political priority,’ José kept his face neutral but he could feel his stomach churning and the implications of a delay.’
‘Our technical teams have been monitoring Kalahari’s activities. We have access to their file stores and communications, we see what they’ve been retrieving from the intelligence databases and know their queries in the AI artificial intelligence engines.’
So someone has broken the law, José figured, and the ultimate responsibility is mine. Aloud: ‘I said from the start that we must keep within the law, however high profile the case.’
‘Yes. It is the speech you give at the start of every case.’ She looked down at her notebook and read the next words. ‘Have you said, implied, written or otherwise communicated anything contrary to any of the Kalahari team or to others who may or may not have been in contract with the Kalahari team?’
‘No.’ He wondered if someone had been bad-mouthing him. ‘It is utterly against what I stand for, it is against my instructions, their training and our own monitoring.’
‘The action must be immediate.’ It was the judge speaking this time. His jowls sagged and he spoke slowly. ‘To do otherwise would be to condone their activity.’
José thought of Kalahari’s mission and the political urgency. ‘I will appoint a new team immediately.’
‘The new team should exclude all research outputs and analysis – even accepting the raw intelligence of collections could be taken as collusion.’
‘That means the new team will have to start again from scratch. And I’m the one who will have to tell the politicians there will be a delay.’ He paused for a contradiction.
‘And what of our Kalahari team?’ He felt a deep loyalty to them.
‘There was blatant collusion between them. The entire team should be suspended, pending an enquiry. They must be blocked from any contact with the new team.’
The politicians were scathing at his explanation of ‘unforeseen operational challenges’.
The new research reports came quicker than José expected, and even the analysis report was prompt. The political decision-makers ignored most of it (as usual), took their political actions, and the world moved on to new crises. The official judgement took much longer.
José read the judgement methodically. Some words caught his attention. He went to the report for the replacement team and examined their research reports. There were chunks of wording that was identical to Kalahari. José was grateful he was alone. He sunk his head in his hands as he realised the replacement team had ignored orders and used Kalahari’s illegal intercepts.
Which left him with the question of whether he should report it, and lose a second team.