In Break with Tradition, New British Surveillance Chief is an Intel Outsider

The United Kingdom’s global surveillance agency is getting a new leader. But in a move widely seen as an attempt to bring the organization to heel following months of embarrassing leaks about its operations, the new director is a political operative who is more James Carville than James Bond. Robert Hannigan, a career diplomat and ...

Ministry of Defense
Ministry of Defense
Ministry of Defense

The United Kingdom's global surveillance agency is getting a new leader. But in a move widely seen as an attempt to bring the organization to heel following months of embarrassing leaks about its operations, the new director is a political operative who is more James Carville than James Bond.

Robert Hannigan, a career diplomat and former adviser to two prime ministers, was appointed director of the Government Communications Headquarters, the equivalent of the National Security Agency, earlier this week. Historically, all but two GCHQ directors have either climbed up the career ladder of the agency or had significant experience in signals intelligence. The most recent director, Iain Lobban, joined the agency in 1983. Hannigan, by contrast, is a political operative who has served as a government spokesman and was closely involved in the Northern Ireland peace process and other high-profile diplomatic negotiations.

While Hannigan has experience managing national security issues, it has been largely as a counselor to elected officials. When Gordon Brown was elected prime minister in 2007, he made Hannigan his adviser on intelligence and security at No. 10 Downing Street. Hannigan is currently the director general for defense and intelligence at the Foreign Office, the equivalent of the U.S State Department.

The United Kingdom’s global surveillance agency is getting a new leader. But in a move widely seen as an attempt to bring the organization to heel following months of embarrassing leaks about its operations, the new director is a political operative who is more James Carville than James Bond.

Robert Hannigan, a career diplomat and former adviser to two prime ministers, was appointed director of the Government Communications Headquarters, the equivalent of the National Security Agency, earlier this week. Historically, all but two GCHQ directors have either climbed up the career ladder of the agency or had significant experience in signals intelligence. The most recent director, Iain Lobban, joined the agency in 1983. Hannigan, by contrast, is a political operative who has served as a government spokesman and was closely involved in the Northern Ireland peace process and other high-profile diplomatic negotiations.

While Hannigan has experience managing national security issues, it has been largely as a counselor to elected officials. When Gordon Brown was elected prime minister in 2007, he made Hannigan his adviser on intelligence and security at No. 10 Downing Street. Hannigan is currently the director general for defense and intelligence at the Foreign Office, the equivalent of the U.S State Department.

In the days leading up to Hannigan’s appointment, speculation had focused on three candidates, including him, all of whom came from outside the agency and were close to Whitehall. Analysts said appointing any of them would be a signal that the British government wanted to bring the spy agency more tightly under the control of country’s political leadership. "The perception is that Westminster is keen to take charge," Charlie Edwards, director of national security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, told the Financial Times earlier this month.

Like the NSA, the GCHQ has come under intense scrutiny and criticism for intelligence operations exposed by the former contractor NSA Edward Snowden. Many of the documents that Snowden leaked to journalists detail controversial British surveillance operations, including a program to collect webcam images from unsuspecting computer users and a plan to try and discredit Wikileaks and monitor people who visited the site. Some intelligence programs were done in conjunction with the NSA, with which the GCHQ has a long-standing and close relationship.

"This no doubt reflects that changed climate and a desire both to make sure that the agency doesn’t do things just because it can, and the interest in representing what it does better, and more diplomatically," said Gregory Treverton, a former senior U.S. intelligence official who now works as a senior policy analyst with the RAND Corp.

The UK is a party to the so-called "five eyes" agreement, in which Britain, the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand share information and cooperate on operations. That relationship was strained after Snowden revealed the NSA was eavesdropping on the communications of foreign leaders whose countries weren’t part of the spying pact, most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

More broadly, the Snowden documents underscored the GCHQ’s long-standing and close relationship with the NSA. And although Hannigan’s appointment is being seen as a reaction to the overreach of GCHQ, he isn’t likely to upset that special relationship between the two allies.

"He’s very thoughtful and understands the American connection," said former NSA Deputy Director Chris Inglis, referring to decades-long relationship between the two countries. Inglis said Hannigan’s appointment also reflects the British government’s desire to have a closer handle on cyber security issues. GCHQ plays a leading role in computer network defense and warfare for the UK.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement that Hannigan "brings to the job a wealth of relevant experience in the fields of national security, counter-terrorism and international relations."

Hannigan’s appointment means that both GCHQ and the UK’s foreign intelligence service, MI-6, the equivalent of the American CIA, will both be headed by outsiders. Historically, MI-6 had also been led by career intelligence officers. But the appointment in 2009 of John Sawers as the Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, as the agency is formally known, broke with a more than 40-year tradition. Sawers, like Hannigan, spent most of his career in diplomatic service.

The British set-up stands in stark contrast to the United States, where the CIA and the NSA are both headed by long-time intelligence officers who spent their careers in their respective disciplines. CIA Director John Brennan spent most of his early career in the agency’s operations directorate, serving as the station chief in Riyadh and eventually rising to a senior post at Langley. He left government in 2005 but returned four years later as President Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland security adviser and was confirmed as CIA director last year.

The new head of the NSA, Adm. Mike Rogers, spent his career in signals intelligence and cryptography, the agency’s core disciplines. He was also most recently the head of cyber warfare and defense for the Navy, experience that will come in handy as Rogers is also now the commander of U.S. Cyber Command, responsible for all military cyber security operations.

Twitter: @shaneharris

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