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GCHQ Boss Apologises For 'Horrifying' Treatment Of Alan Turing And Historic Ban On Homosexuals

'Their suffering was our loss.'

16/04/2016 10:24

The head of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has apologised for its "horrifying" treatment of Alan Turing and its historic prejudice against homosexuals.

Robert Hannigan said the secret service failed to learn from its mistaken treatment of the genius and archaic attitudes had persisted for decades, stifling the careers of brilliant minds.

It included a ban on homosexuals joining the organisation that remained in place into the 1990s, causing long-lasting psychological damage to those who found themselves outed, interrogated and ostracised over their sexuality.

Stonewall
Robert Hannigan, head of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), apologisesfor its historic prejudice against homosexuals.

GCHQ works on counter terrorism, cyber-attacks, serious crime, and other threats to the UK and citizens online.

Speaking at a conference hosted by Stonewall on Friday, the digital espionage chief told how a former spy, "Ian", who was forced out of the service on suspicion of being gay in the 1960s, had urged him to apologise for his treatment.

He said: "I am happy to do so today and to say how sorry I am that he and so many others were treated in this way, right up until the 1990s when the policy was rightly changed.

"The fact that it was common practice for decades reflected the intolerance of the times and the pressures of the Cold War, but it does not make it any less wrong and we should apologise for it.

"Their suffering was our loss and it was the nation's loss too because we cannot know what Ian and others who were dismissed would have gone on to do and achieve. We did not learn our lesson from Turing."

Dennis Van Tine/ABACA USA
Alan Turing, who led the famous Bletchley Park codebreakers to crack the Enigma, took his own life in 1954 after being ordered to undergo chemical castration.

Known as the father of the modern computer, Turing led the famous Bletchley Park codebreakers who cracked the Enigma, an encryption device used by the Nazis.

Despite his ground-breaking work that is now recognised to have shortened the Second World War, he was hounded from the secret service over his sexuality.

Turing faced a criminal charge of indecency over his relationship with another man and after conviction in 1952 was ordered to undergo chemical castration.

In 1954 he took his own life by eating an apple laced with cyanide. In 2013 he received a royal pardon, although the tragic tale of how the war hero's life ended had become "sadly famous", Hannigan said.

"In the horrifying story of his treatment, a small ray of light is that he was not abandoned by all of his colleagues at GCHQ - many stood by him," he added.

Hannigan said the GCHQ lit up its building last year to partly to honour Turing to celebrate IDAHOBiT day last year, adding "it was also kind of an act of atonement - for the lost opportunity of his early death".

John Stillwell/PA Archive
Alan Turing's family hand in a petition at number 10 Downing Street calling for the 49,000 people convicted under British anti-gay laws to be pardoned.

Hannigan said: "Who knows what Turing would have gone on to do, where, for example, he might have taken his pioneering interest in Artificial Intelligence, which is the the thing everyone is talking about.

"We will never know and should, as a society, never repeat that mistake."

More than half a century on GCHQ now relies on those who "dare to think differently and be different", he said.

It included hiring spies on the autistic spectrum, with Aspergers or other syndromes, who he described as "precious assets" for protecting national security.

Hannigan told the Stonewall Workplace Conference in London that GCHQ supported the charity in "defending and promoting tolerance and acceptance without exception".

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