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A British Spy Agency’s London HQ Operated in Secret for 66 Years. Turns Out, It Was Right Next Door.

GCHQ Secret London Base RevealedGCHQ Secret London Base Revealed
A drab office building served as a secret base of the U.K. spy agency GCHQ for decades. Dan Kitwood—Getty Images

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier… Office Worker?

To the thousands of London commuters who strolled past its nondescript wooden doors every day, the red brick office on Palmer Street was as unremarkable as a red bus, black taxi or teeming rain.

Yet the office block sandwiched between a branch of Starbucks and the Adam & Eve pub near St. James’ Park tube station held a remarkable secret. Behind its shabby veneer, the Palmer Street office was also known as station UKC1000: the clandestine London home of the U.K’s intelligence and security organization GCHQ.

Operating undetected by the general public for 66 years, the staff inside UKC1000 helped protect the U.K during the Cold War, The Troubles in Northern Ireland, the 2012 London Olympics, and other investigations, working closely alongside MI6, MI5, and the Metropolitan Police—whose New Scotland Yard home was until recently little more than a two minute stroll away. Unlike the other agencies, GCHQ specializes in ‘signals intelligence’: essentially, the interception and analysis of communications between people, which in the modern day primarily revolves around snooping on cell phones, iPads and other electronic devices linked to the Internet.

GCHQ Secret London Base Revealed
Nothing to see here. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Dan Kitwood—Getty Images

“For the first time, we are able to reveal the role our Palmer Street office has played in keeping the capital and the country safe,” reads a statement released by GCHQ on Wednesday. The spy agency added that intelligence staff “no longer operate from the building,” and that it has moved operations to another secret location in the U.K. capital.

“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,” added Director of GCHQ, Jeremy Fleming. “Then, as now, it’s a history defined by the belief that with the right mix of minds, anything is possible.”

Established on November 1, 1919, as a peacetime code-breaking unit made up from staff from the Royal Navy and War Office, GCHQ was first known as the Government Code & Cypher School (GC&CS).

During WWII, its staff operated covertly from Bletchley Park in Bedfordshire, where a team led by Alan Turing—portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the award-winning 2014 drama The Imitation Game—broke the previously uncrackable code of the German Enigma communications machine, handing Allied forces a major advantage in the lead up to D-Day.

Palmer Street came into operation in the Spring of 1953 to serve as a central London spy hub, shortly after GCHQ moved its main headquarters from the London suburb of Eastcote to the sleepy, rural surroundings of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire.

Queen Elizabeth commemorated GCHQ’s 100-year anniversary earlier this year by unveiling a plaque at a different London site—Watergate House near Charing Cross station, the original home and birthplace of the spy agency.

“It’s clear to us all that the world is changing at an unprecedented rate. It’s more interconnected than ever before,” Fleming said earlier this year in a speech about why GCHQ’s needed to keep reinventing itself.

“This is driving extraordinary opportunity, innovation and progress. It’s also unleashing amazing complexity, uncertainty and risk. To keep up in this digital era—to optimize the potential of technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing—we know we need to keep reinventing.”

One step in that reinvention was moving to a new secret location in London that is, no doubt, as inconspicuous as the last.