Head of GCHQ spy agency resigns for family reasons

LONDON (Reuters) - British spy chief Robert Hannigan said on Monday he was stepping down as head of Britain’s intelligence eavesdropping service GCHQ for family reasons.

FILE PHOTO: The director of Britain's GCHQ Robert Hannigan delivers a speech at Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham, November 17, 2015. REUTERS/Ben Birchall/Pool/File Photo

Hannigan, GCHQ director since 2014, said the job had demanded “a great deal” from his family.

“As you know, I have also initiated the greatest internal change within GCHQ for 30 years and I feel that we are now well on the way to being fit for the next generation of security challenges to the UK in the digital age,” he wrote in a letter to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

“After a good deal of thought, I have decided that this is the right time to move on and to allow someone else to lead GCHQ through its next phase.”

Hannigan, who was a senior diplomat responsible for defence and intelligence issues before taking the GCHQ job, said he would stay in his role until a successor was found.

GCHQ, based in a futuristic building named the doughnut because of its shape located in Cheltenham in western England, is one of three British spy agencies alongside MI5 which handles domestic matters and MI6 which deals with foreign affairs.

Hannigan took over at a time when the agency had found itself facing unprecedented public scrutiny following leaks by ex-U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden which indicated GCHQ and the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) had carried out widespread surveillance of electronic communications.

He initiated a more open approach to the notoriously secret agency, giving public speeches in which he was openly critical of U.S. tech companies such as Twitter and Facebook for unwittingly helping militant groups such as Islamic State, saying they should do more to help law enforcement agencies.

“GCHQ and its sister agencies, MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), cannot tackle these challenges at scale without greater support from the private sector, including the largest U.S. technology companies which dominate the web,” he wrote in a 2014 newspaper article.

In his resignation letter, he said he was proud of building up greater understanding of the intelligence work carried out by GCHQ’s 6,000 employees.

“While this work must remain secret, you will know how many lives have been saved in this country and overseas by the work of GCHQ,” he wrote.

Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Stephen Addison