Zircon

Back in the early 1980s the UK's Government Communications Headquarters (aka GCHQ) was highly reliant on the US National Security Agency (NSA) for its space based signals interception assets. This had become obvious during the 1982 Falklands War and had caused concern in the intelligence community. GCHQ's Director, Brian Tovey opted to produce a UK designed and built sigint satellite, to be called Zircon. The satellite was to be launched on a Shuttle as Skynet IV, with the UK's first astronaut to be the payload specialist on that mission.

In the end the project was cancelled on cost grounds in early 1987, but not before a furore blew up in the media. Duncan Campbell, an investigative journalist on New Statesman with a lot of "previous" for investigating the military and political structures of the UK MOD, published an article on Zircon. Zircon had been hidden for Parliament and its costs (reckoned to be 100,000,000 a year) were a substantial amount in anyone's book. Campbell began investigating Zircon in 1986 as part of a BBC TV series called "Secret Society". As he interviewed the players it was becoming clear that Campbell knew more about Zircon than the Government thought he should.

Special Branch raids on the BBC and Campbell's home followed and the Government took out injunctions on publication and transmission. Campbell himself had his collar felt and put in gaol for a short time. However, it was too late and New Statesman published Campbell's article in January 1987. The cat was out of the bag and despite the (truthful) claim that Zircon had been cancelled, the problem lay in the government's bypassing of the parliamentary system. Another factor was the heavy-handed attempts to suppress the story (which reflected that of the "Spycatcher" Affair and was typical of the Thatcher government's attitude to intelligence matters).

"Secret Society" was transmitted without the Zircon episode and the whole business swept under the carpet. About 2 years later the Zircon episode was transmitted and is worth a look just to see the expression on the Rear-Admiral's face when Campbell mentions Zircon.

A fuller account of the whole business is available at the Federation of American Scientist site, www.fas.org


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