Here's who intelligence insiders tip for the next GCHQ director

The search is on for one of the most senior roles in British intelligence.

U.K. intelligence community (UKIC) insiders believe that the departure of GCHQ’s current director, Sir Jeremy Fleming, offers a good opportunity for the agency to bring in its first female executive. A handful of in-the-knows told The Record of more than half a dozen people from various backgrounds who are being tipped for the position.

Unlike in the United States, where spy chiefs are explicitly nominated by the country’s political leadership and then confirmed by the Senate, the recruitment process for the heads of Britain’s intelligence agencies is strictly internal and ostensibly insulated from political interference.

Frustratingly (for journalists) this process is exceptionally secretive. In the face of this discretion, The Record asked UKIC insiders for their runners and riders for the role. The sources, who have been granted anonymity because of the secretive nature of the position, are not involved in the recruitment process but have worked or are working in the intelligence community. They are familiar with the individuals and the hiring process.

Not running… Simon Case

The Record previously reported that Simon Case has ruled himself out of a potentially scandalous application to helm GCHQ, an agency where he briefly worked before becoming the youngest Cabinet secretary in a century in 2020.

He had been touted as a potential applicant by several sources with connections to the agency. None of them welcomed the idea.

Case will instead be chairing the recruitment process, which “will include a written application, assessments, and a final interview,” according to a GCHQ spokesperson.

Deputy Director General at MI5

The Record’s sources tip the serving deputy director general of the Security Service — colloquially known as MI5 — as a good candidate for the role, and one who is likely to apply. When Fleming joined GCHQ back in 2017, he came from the exact same position at MI5.

The Record can report that she is a woman with considerable experience working in British intelligence, but one whose name and identity is not currently avowed. In line with a standing request from the U.K.’s Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee, The Record is not publishing any identifying information about her.

Deputy Director General at MI6

The deputy director general at MI6 is, similar to his colleague at MI5, tipped as both a good candidate for the role and one who is likely to apply. The Record can report that he is a man and works for the Secret Intelligence Service, Britain’s foreign spying agency, but again we are voluntarily deciding not to publish any identifying information.

Thomas Drew

The Record’s sources say Thomas Drew — currently the director general for defence and intelligence at the Foreign Office — would be considered a likely applicant and strong candidate for the role.

Drew’s career as a diplomat has seen him serve as the British high commissioner to Pakistan in Islamabad’s diplomatic enclave and he was previously stationed in Moscow from 1998 to 2002 as the head of the British Embassy's economic team.

Domestically he has also served as the director of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism at the Home Office.

Dr. Clare Gardiner

Dr. Clare Gardiner is a senior civil servant with a rare research background in medical statistics and epidemiology. Having formerly headed the national resilience and strategy mission at the National Cyber Security Centre, a part of GCHQ, she left during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic to lead Britain's Joint Biosecurity Centre.

The Record’s sources describe her as someone who would be regarded as highly credible internally at GCHQ, and a welcome home-grown candidate for the role.

Gavin Smith

Gavin Smith is the only person serving on GCHQ's leadership board who sources name tipped. He’s the agency’s director general for technology, “responsible for GCHQ's technical capability that enables it to deliver its mission and for driving the innovation to meet future technological challenges,” as the agency’s website states.

Like Gardiner, he is spoken of extremely highly by colleagues and would be considered highly credible by current staff at GCHQ. Smith is also one of the surprisingly few people with deep technical expertise to be represented among the agency’s senior leadership. UKIC insiders who spoke to The Record were not confident that either he or Gardiner would decide to apply.

Matthew Gould

Matthew Gould was described as a welcome potential applicant for the role — and another rare leadership candidate with deep technical expertise — although he has now left government service. He describes himself as a “trainee zookeeper” on his Twitter account, where he regularly posts pictures of his hands-on work as the director general of the Zoological Society of London.

Prior to his career wrangling animals (and maybe some less photogenic paperwork) at ZSL London Zoo, Gould held a range of roles in government, including as the British Ambassador to Israel and as the government’s director of cyber security. He was the national director for digital transformation in NHS England and the director general for digital transformation at the Department of Health, as well as the chief executive of NHSX — the national health service's technology unit.

Chloe Squires

Chloe Squires is currently the inaugural director general for the Homeland Security Group, a newer, smaller and lesser-known part of the British intelligence community.

In Squires’ favor is an accomplished resumé — she has held director-level positions across Whitehall, including for national security at the Home Office and for cyber at the Foreign Office. She even helped establish the National Cyber Security Centre back in 2016.

Squires is also described as having helped implement the U.K.'s Investigatory Powers Act, a sweeping reform of the country's spying laws brought in the wake of the scandal caused by Edward Snowden. While insiders praise her abilities they note she is quite young in comparison to the other names floating around.

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Alexander Martin

Alexander Martin

is the UK Editor for Recorded Future News. He was previously a technology reporter for Sky News and is also a fellow at the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative.