Robert Hannigan, Director of British security agency GCHQ, was one of the keynote speakers at today’s Stonewall Workplace Conference in Westminster, London.
Hannigan, who has been director of the agency since 2014, used his morning speech to explain how GCHQ had become a more inclusive employer, and to apologize to former employees who had been dismissed because of their sexuality.
GCHQ’s most famous former member of staff was Alan Turing, the mathematician famous for helping to crack the German Enigma. Turing was prosecuted for being a gay man in the late 1940s, and committed suicide two years later, aged just 42.
GCHQ – one of the UK’s three governmental security agencies alongside MI5 and MI6 – barred gay people from applying for positions until 1991.
Hannigan said that as part of its commitment to demonstrate its inclusive nature, and in tribute to Turing, GCHQ had lit its iconic Cheltenham headquarters in rainbow lighting to coincide with International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT) in 2015.
This gesture prompted one former member of staff, who he simply referred to as ‘Ian’, to write to GCHQ about his experience as a gay man who had been fired from the agency.
Ian joined the agency in 1961 after serving in the RAF. However, after the agency discovered details of his sexuality, he was forced to leave – a rejection that scarred him for many years.
Hannigan said that he would publically like to apologize to Ian and all the other staff who were unfairly dismissed because of their sexuality.
‘In his letter, Ian asked if I would apologise publicly on behalf of GCHQ – not in some way to “pardon” him because, as he said, he did nothing wrong – but to apologise to him for his treatment. I am happy to do so today and to say how sorry I am that he and so many others were treated in this way, right up until the 1990s when the policy was rightly changed.’
In his letter, Ian said that his dismissal had left him feeling that he had never reached his true potential, and Hannigan agreed that the country had lost a huge pool of talent through its action in the past – a mistake it never wanted to make again.
After his speech, Hannigan returned to the issue in a Q&A with journalists.
‘I’m very sorry about the way they were treated,’ he said, saying that besides Ian, ‘there were many others … I know it was the law at the time and I know that there were all sorts of reasons, but none of them make it right and we need to learn the lessons and not repeat them in the future.’
He said that his is own decision to speak out on these issues had first arisen around 15 years ago when he worked in another civil service department. A gay colleague told him about a ‘horrendous’ experience he’d had when being vetted for a particular job in the 1980s.
‘It got my sense of injustice going that this should not be possible. And to be fair, that’s now changed, the experience of vetting, but it was a particular issue for gay people, even in the 90s, so we put a lot of effort into making it a different experience.’
Hannigan also answered questions around encryption and the dilemma of sharing technology and data with other governments around the world that aren’t accepting of LGBT people.
‘The moral dilemma of our age is how you give legitimate access to law enforcement and legally warranted intelligence agencies in political democracies without weakening either the devices or internet for everyone.
‘We’ve spent 100 years improving encryption and security, so half of our business has been doing that, and Alan Turning, although famous for cracking Enigma, actually spent more of his career designing a secure telephony service for the US and UK governments, so we are very, very committed to safe communications online and strong encryption.’
‘We’re looking through a very small sub-set of people who are using the internet to do bad things – we are not interested in, or entitled to look at, anyone else.’
With regard to working with foreign regimes, he said that GCHQ was ultimately led by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
‘There are countries we can’t work with or only work with in very limited ways, and we take our lead from the rest of the Government on that.’
Asked by Gay Star News if he believed the notion of online privacy was at odds with national security, he replied: ‘No, I don’t think it is and I certainly don’t think it has to be. We’ve had a good relationship with companies that want to help within the law, so getting the law right is very important.
‘The truth is, the internet is a relatively new thing – 25-35 years old – and we’re still trying to work out what it the right balance.
‘I believe in strong privacy protection. We’re looking through a very small sub-set of people who are abusing privacy and using the internet to do bad things, we are not interested in – or entitled to look at – anyone else. That’s the protection that Parliament has set out.
‘Privacy matters for everybody and it’s something we take incredibly seriously. Despite some of the more lurid headlines about us, I think we are very carefully controlled. Privacy is governed by the law and by the ethics of our staff.’
Hannigan said that he knew of many LGBT people working in all three security agencies, and that embracing tolerance was important because so much of their work involved fighting intolerance – as best exemplified through the rise of ISIL.
Asked if GCHQ, as an employer, offered support to LGBTI staff who had to watch some of the shocking videos produced by ISIL, some of which shows the torture and murder of LGBTI people, Hannigan said: ‘We have a very strong psychological support program for people who have to look at these images, and it’s not just LGBT people, of course.
‘Images of children bring crucified in front of their parents, people being beheaded, this is deeply disturbing for everybody. There is a lot of welfare support for staff to do these things. It is traumatic.’
Stonewall’s 13th annual Workplace Conference is taking place at the QEII Conference Centre in central London. It is being supported by EY. With 800 attendees, it is not only the LGBT advocacy’s group’s biggest Workplace Conference, but the biggest event it has ever staged.
For security reasons, Hannigan’s attendance at the event was kept a secret until his appearance on stage this morning.