LONDON Britain said on Tuesday it had picked a diplomat to head its GCHQ eavesdropping agency which has found itself under unprecedented public scrutiny because of documents leaked by former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
Britain announced in January that the agency's current chief, Iain Lobban, would be standing down after six years in charge of Britain's equivalent of America's National Security Agency (NSA).
The 53-year-old's departure was announced after he had publicly defended the legality of GCHQ's work, denying it conducted illegal mass surveillance. Officials said his leaving had nothing to do with the fallout from the leaked documents.
On Tuesday, Britain's Foreign Office announced that Robert Hannigan, a senior diplomat responsible for defense and intelligence issues, would become the new head of GCHQ and would start in the autumn.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said Hannigan, 49, had the right mix of experience for the role.
"As well as his impressive personal qualities, Robert brings to the job a wealth of relevant experience in the fields of national security, counter-terrorism and international relations," said Hague.
Hannigan advised former prime minister Tony Blair on the peace process in Northern Ireland and liaised with the U.S. government on the issue.
He has sat on Britain's joint intelligence committee for many years and has regularly chaired meetings of the government's emergency committee, which deals with threats to national security.
Prime Minister David Cameron's government has so far deflected calls for changes to the way Britain's intelligence agencies are regulated, saying the current oversight system is sufficiently rigorous and that much about their work must remain secret for national security.
With more than 6,000 employees, GCHQ is based in a futuristic building outside London named the doughnut because of its shape.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn and William James; Editing by Andrew Osborn)