Fleming joins UK surveillance agency amid row with White House over claims it spied on Donald Trump
MI5’s deputy director, Jeremy Fleming, has been named the new head of GCHQ as the UK surveillance agency finds itself embroiled in a very public row with the White House over claims it helped eavesdrop on Donald Trump.
Fleming will take up the post around Easter. He is expected to continue in the same vein as his predecessor, Robert Hannigan, who pushed GCHQ to be more transparent. Hannigan, unlike his predecessors, spoke much more often in public and engaged in debate over the balance between privacy and surveillance, especially the role of the big internet companies.
Fleming, who joined MI5 in 1993 from the private sector, has been engaged in counter-terrorism, both in Northern Ireland and against Islamist groups, and led the domestic intelligence agency’s preparations for the London 2012 Olympics. He has been heavily involved in technology, including cyber security, and became MI5’s deputy
Fleming said: “It is a great privilege to be asked to lead GCHQ as it approaches its centenary in 2019. The organisation has a distinguished past and an increasingly important role to play in keeping Britain safe in the digital age.”
He added: “I look forward to building on his legacy and in particular, the role he has played in increasing the transparency of GCHQ’s crucial work and in expanding its cyber mission through the work of the National Cyber Security Centre.”
The centre, which opened last month, is the most visible sign of GCHQ’s willingness to have a public profile. It offers advice to companies on how to combat threats from hackers.
GCHQ is one of the biggest surveillance organisations in the world, working so closely with its US counterpart the National Security Agency that the two are almost indistinguishable. They have an agreement not to spy on one another or any member of the “Five Eyes” alliance – the other participants are Australia, New Zealand and Canada – but anyone else is fair game.
The most publicised challenges at present are the cyber threats posed by hackers in Russia, who the UK and US intelligence agencies claim are working on behalf of Vladimir Putin, and by Islamist terrorists.
The foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, announcing Fleming’s appointment, praised the skill and ingenuity of the UK intelligence community and made a point of saying they were not just defending Britain from cyber-attacks, terror plots and other activities but also defending our allies.
The national security adviser, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, said Fleming was “a national security professional of the highest standard, who is widely respected across the national security community, in the UK and overseas.”
director in 2013.
Although GCHQ is a little more transparent these days, it is still extremely rare for it to enter a political debate as it did last week to dismiss as “utterly ridiculous” Trump’s allegation that Barack Obama asked the UK organisation to spy on him during the US presidential election.
While GCHQ was dragged into the White House row, in the past it would have maintained a stoic silence. That it put out a statement dismissing the allegation is an indication of how much it has changed.