UK spy chief apologises for GCHQ’s historic ban on gay staff

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

The Director of UK intelligence agency GCHQ has addressed concerns about the impact of mass monitoring on LGBT people – and apologised for the organisation’s legacy of banning gay and lesbian staff.

Apple boss Tim Cook and intelligence whistleblower Chelsea Manning have recently both warned about the trend of intelligence ‘backdoors’ in communications platforms, which could adversely affect LGBT people.

In an interview with PinkNews, the Director of the UK’s central intelligence and security agency GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) Robert Hannigan spoke about fears that monitoring could do damage if the tools become commonplace in anti-LGBT regimes.

Mr Hannigan told PinkNews: “I think it’s a really good point – there’s a moral dilemma about how you give legitimate access to law enforcement and legally-warranted intelligence agencies in liberal democracies without leaking devices for everyone.

“I’ve talked a lot about this and there isn’t a magic answer.

“All I’d say is we have spent 100 years improving encryption and security, so half of our business is doing that.

“We are very committed to safe communications online and strong encryption, because it protects the individual for exactly reasons you say and many others.”

He added: “When it comes to working with difficult regimes, I don’t think the problem for us is any different from other parts of government.

“We take our lead from the Foreign Office on this. There are countries we either can’t work with or can only work with in very limited ways. It is a great dilemma.”

PinkNews also challenged Mr Hannigan about the potential impact of the UK’s security alliance with Saudi Arabia – where gay people face jail or death.

He said: “The nature of those security relationships are governed by the Foreign Secretary ultimately, and the Prime Minister – and there are pretty strict rules about what you can engage on and what you can share with any country, including Saudi.”

On encryption generally, he said: “I know there’s been some stand-off recently [with Apple] but we have a good relationship with companies who want to help within the law.

“The truth is the internet is a relatively new thing, and we’re still trying to work out what is the right balance.

“We’re looking at a very small subset of people who use the internet to do very bad things, we are not interested or legally entitled to look at anyone else.”

Elsewhere in the interview, he apologised for GCHQ’s homophobic legacy – having enforced a ban on gay staff until 1991.

The policy famously impacted codebreaker Alan Turing, who was barred from working as a cryptographic consultant over a ‘gross indecency’ conviction in 1952.

Mr Hannigan told PinkNews: “There were two reasons why there was that policy.

“Until 1967 it was illegal, and particularly during the Cold War there was the thinking that people could be blackmailed and there was a vetting issue – and there’s a dose of societal prejudice thrown in there. We were a victim of the times.

“What have we done to break that down? Obviously, we have changed the policy but I think there’s a culture of change to go through.
UK spy chief apologises for GCHQ’s historic ban on gay staff

“Having role models, doing very public stuff like lighting up the HQ [in rainbow colours], celebrating Turing in a new way – these are always ways of sending a message externally, but also to our staff and our future staff: this is the kind of organisation we are.”

He said: “I’m very sorry for the way they were treated. I know that there were all sorts of reasons, but none of them make it right. We need to learn lessons, and not repeat them in the future.”

The spy chief added that GCHQ “doesn’t know exactly how many” people were impacted by the policy – but is keen to reach out and make amends.

He also explained his reason for green-lighting the organisation’s poignant rainbow light display last year,  marking the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

Speaking at the Stonewall Workplace Conference, he said: “It was partly to honour Turing… but it was also an act of atonement – for the lost opportunity of his early death.

“Who knows what Turing would have gone on to do, where, for example, he might have taken his pioneering interest in Artificial Intelligence. We will never know and should, as a society, never make that mistake again.

“And that loss is not just about Turing.

“Shortly after we lit up the building I had a long and moving letter from a former member of staff, Ian, who had served in the RAF and joined us in 1961.

“After seven years of exemplary service, with strong prospects, he was interrogated on suspicion of being homosexual, summarily dismissed and escorted out of the building.

“He got no support from anyone in authority, even his union, and no-one ever followed up to check on his well-being or to show any compassion.

“Not surprisingly, his health suffered and the psychological effects of this humiliation were long-lasting.

“While he eventually found an alternative job in another part of the Civil Service, he is surely right in believing that in career terms he never reached the potential expected of him – his prospects were curtailed because he was subject to what now seem archaic rules on sexuality for anyone involved in sensitive work in Government service.”

He added: “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.

“The fact that it was common practice for decades reflected the intolerance of the times and the pressures of the Cold War, but does not make it any less wrong.

“Their suffering was our loss and it was the nation’s loss too – we cannot know what Ian and others who were dismissed would have gone on to achieve.”