Profiles in intelligence: an interview with Tony Comer
Until August 2020, Martin Anthony ‘Tony’ Comer was the first publicly avowed Departmental Historian of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the UK’s cyber and signals intelligence agency. His career at GCHQ spanned thirty-seven years, both operationally and, from 2009, as the eighth Departmental Historian (‘the best job in GCHQ’, he has previously said), culminating with GCHQ’s centenary in 2019 and publication of the authorised history of the agency, authored by Prof. John Ferris.1
Born in Langley, Greater Manchester, Tony joined GCHQ in October 1983, first, as a linguist and, then, taking a series of operational roles within ‘the department’. Over the years, he has worked on GCHQ support for the armed forces and was the UK representative on the NATO Signals Intelligence committee. The role of Departmental Historian was his first non-operational job, and, from April 2009, one that he gradually developed from a largely in-house function writing the classified history of GCHQ, to a public facing one, telling the story of GCHQ’s work and promoting the study of UK signals intelligence to a wider audience. From April 2009 to August 2020, Tony supported GCHQ’s public engagement activity by communicating with thousands – if not tens of thousands – of people and took a central role in marking the centenary of GCHQ, as well as supporting the work of the Bletchley Park Trust, commemorating the important work of GCHQ’s predecessor, the Government Code & Cipher School (GC&CS), during the Second World War. ‘For a lot of people’, Tony reflected at the end of his career, ‘I am the only member of an intelligence service they will ever meet (or at least know that they have met) – that is a terrific honour’. He was appointed OBE in the 2020 New Year’s Honours for services to International and Intelligence history.
Tony continues to write on the history of Sigint and publishes document extracts via https://siginthistorian.blogspot.com/, and has contributed to the Lawfare podcast and Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Commentary. This is the first major interview with a former UK agency departmental historian, in which he discusses the work of in-house history, intelligence agency transparency and engagement, and provides insights into the Centenary of GCHQ.
What follows is an edited transcript of an interview conducted with Tony over Monday 10th and Thursday 13 January 2022.