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GCHQ has its first female director: From hostile states to HR, she has a busy in-tray

HR and politicians as well as nation states and criminals need attention...

Anne Keast-Butler, Deputy Director General (DG) of MI5 -- the UK's domestic counter-intelligence and security agency -- has been appointed as new GCHQ Director, effective May 2023; the first woman to hold the role.

Keast-Butler, who has spent 30 years in national security, previously spent two years on secondment to GCHQ as head of counter terrorism and serious organised crime. She will take over from Sir Jeremy Fleming.

Announcing the news, GCHQ – the UK’s signals intelligence (communications and data collection and analysis) organisation, which also leads on cybersecurity – described her as most recently being the DG responsible for overseeing MI5's operational, investigative and protective security work: "This has included MI5's – and allies’ - preparation for and response to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine" it said in a short biography on April 11.

National Security Adviser Sir Tim Barrow said in a press release: “Anne was the exceptional candidate in a talented field. She brings a wealth of experience from across the national security community, has the vision to take GCHQ into the future and will ensure that it continues its vital work to protect the UK. I am grateful to Jeremy for his service as Director GCHQ and over a distinguished career in national security. Jeremy's insights and analysis have been hugely valuable through one of the most demanding periods of our recent history," he added.

Keast-Butler said: “In just the last year GCHQ has contributed vital intelligence to shape the West’s response to the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine; helped disrupt terrorist plots; and worked tirelessly to tackle the ongoing threat of ransomware, the impact of which costs the UK dearly. I was privileged to work in GCHQ a few years ago, so I know I am again joining a world-class team of people from diverse backgrounds with a broad range of skills, who share a singular focus on making our country safer, more secure, and more prosperous. I am passionate about continuing to ensure that GCHQ is an organisation where everyone can perform to their very best.”

New GCHQ Director faces terrorists, nation states, some recruitment challenges and a smattering of frustrated MPs

New GCHQ Director Anne Keast-Butler faces a full intray.

Outside the barrage of external threats the UK faces, internal challenges include recruitment in the face of hot competition for technically literate and creative candidates from a private sector which can offer significantly greater salaries, if not job satisfaction. (In the last year for which GCHQ data – as seen by The Stack – is publicly recorded, 2020-2021, it missed its recruitment target by over 50%, hiring 397 staff against a target of 859); all the intelligence agencies in late 2022 notably removed a requirement for applicants to have one British parent.

Covid was no doubt a significant contributor to that and it is likely to have eased notably since, but GCHQ also still faces having to contend with a grindingly slow security vetting process (with the UK Security Vetting organisation responsible being held back by reliance on legacy IT which “is old and unstable, with regular outages that slow down and stop the clearance process for extended periods” according to auditors at the NAO earlier this year).

The political cherry on top is members of Parliament – via the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) – who are increasingly frustrated at the “failure of the UK Intelligence Community to meet standard deadlines as part of the ISC Inquiry process” and who warned in December 2022 that the ISC as a result runs the risk of being unable to “provide any assurance to the public or Parliament that the intelligence Agencies are acting appropriately, and therefore that they merit the licence to operate that Parliament has given them through their statutory powers.”

New GCHQ Director Anne Keast-Butler is no doubt ready to chart a course through GCHQ’s particular part of these choppy waters, having “spent part of the last decade on secondment in Whitehall,” per a short biography from GCHQ, which adds that “whilst there, she helped to launch the National Cyber Security Programme.”

Outgoing GCHQ Director, Sir Jeremy Fleming said: “Anne’s appointment is fantastic news for the organisation. I have worked with Anne for decades and think she is a brilliant choice with deep experience of intelligence and security in today’s technology-driven world” with former NCSC Director Ciaran Martin adding on Twitter: “Anne Keast-Butler will be fantastic as Director GCHQ. Many congratulations and best wishes to her.”

As well as outgoing GCHQ Director Sir Fleming's thoughtful 2022 RUSI lecture, linked to above, for another bigger picture take on some of the broader challenges around cyber and national security, former GCHQ and NCSC technical director Dr Ian Levy's farewell blog also deserves revisiting.

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