Some Notes on the Robert Hannigan Resignation

From the Mail on Sunday:

One of Britain’s top spy chiefs quit after it emerged that he helped a paedophile Catholic priest avoid jail, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.

Prime Minister Theresa May was last night accused of a cover-up over the scandal as she knew of GCHQ director Robert Hannigan’s connection to the child sex offender when he stood down in 2017.

…After Mr Hannigan provided a character reference for Father Edmund Higgins at his 2013 trial, the priest’s eight-month sentence was suspended.

…With the Prime Minister’s blessing, he was allowed to resign on January 23, 2017, citing family commitments. Anonymous briefings were given to the media that he would be caring for sick relatives.

…After his conviction, Higgins, who had served at St Elizabeth’s Church in Richmond, South-West London, was defrocked and changed his name to Edmund Black, but continued to offend.

We can only speculate as to why this has come to light now, and why the story was handed to the MoS‘s deputy political editor Harry Cole (1). The first line (and front-page headline) hint at some sort of improper influence, when in fact the supposed “cover up” merely refers to a personal embarrassment that had no bearing on Hannigan’s integrity or competence (it’s not even clear to what extent his character reference influenced Black’s judge, if at all). On Twitter, Cole has further promoted the story in terms of “Despite knowing Hannigan connection , No10 let him resign quietly into lucrative private security sector”.

But why shouldn’t he have been allowed to “resign quietly”? I find myself agreeing with Ann Widdicombe, that Hannigan’s acknowledgement of his error “should have been the end of the matter”, and that “in a more sensible world, of course, there should have been nothing to hide.”

One person who predicted that there was more to Hannigan’s resignation than we were being told was Peter Hitchens, who in early 2017 wrote that

Last week the chief of Britain’s electronic spying agency, GCHQ, quit without warning or adequate reason. Robert Hannigan, we were briefly told, left his ultra-sensitive £160,000-a- year post after just two years for ‘personal reasons’ . Mr Hannigan is 51 and has previously worked as ‘director general of defence and intelligence’ at the Foreign Office. He can hardly have expected the GCHQ job to allow him to spend a lot of time at home with his family. One has to suspect a controversy. (2)

It seems that Hannigan’s discretion was such that he preferred to have this question mark hanging over him than for GCHQ to be responsible for the agency being at the centre of negative publicity.

But discretion is one thing; misleading briefings are another. Even white lies from public officials undermines public trust, and in this instance conspiracy theories flourished. As Jeremy Duns noted in Foreign Policy:

In March 2017, [former CIA analyst Larry C.] Johnson claimed on his blog that Britain’s signals intelligence agency GCHQ — or, as he repeatedly called it, “GHCQ” — intercepted communications within Trump Tower during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. His evidence for this? GCHQ Director Robert Hannigan had resigned three days after Trump’s inauguration. Hannigan announced that he would be caring for his ill wife and elderly parents, but Johnson saw a darker plot in the timing, writing, “I do not believe in coincidences.” Like many a conspiracy theorist before him, Johnson sought out a reassuringly malevolent order amid the world’s daily churn of chaos. The real reason, he surmised, was obvious: The Brits had passed intelligence they had gathered on Trump to the Obama administration, and as soon as Trump was apprised of this, Hannigan had been forced to step down.

Johnson repeated this fanciful claim on the Kremlin-funded network RT, after which it was picked up by Andrew Napolitano, a Trump confidant and pundit for Fox News. Two days later, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer cited Napolitano’s comments at a briefing, provoking an unusually forceful denial from the Brits.

Another ex-CIA officer, Philip Giraldi (executive director of the Council for the National Interest), promoted the same story at the American Conservative, but focusing on a supposed connection with Michael Flynn.

Perhaps the new revelation will put this old conspiracy theory to bed; but it’s just as likely to be assimilated into an even murkier speculative narrative.


1. Cole was until recently at the Sun, having entered journalism via working for Paul Staines. I don’t have a good opinion of him. His predecessor as Mail on Sunday Deputy Political Editor was Glen Owen, who has now taken over from Simon Walters as Political Editor. Walters, who has moved over to the Daily Mail, produced several MoS articles that promoted Chief Constable Mike Veale and his investigation into Edward Heath.

2. Hitchens’ principle is worth bearing in mind when it comes to other unexpected resignations and retirements, such as this one.

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