Spy chief's resignation 'out of the blue'
The abrupt departure of spymaster Ian Fletcher comes as his troubled agency faces its second major overhaul in two years.
Fletcher's resignation was announced yesterday and he will finish up at the end of next month after three years as director of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB).
Chris Finlayson, the minister responsible for the GCSB, said Fletcher was stepping down for "family reasons".
Both men refused to elaborate and declined interviews yesterday.
In a written statement Finlayson said Fletcher was "instrumental" in "significant improvements" at the foreign spy and cyber security bureau.
Its spooks have been embroiled in a series of scandals, including illegal spying, contentious new powers, and allegations by US whistleblower Edward Snowden of it engaging in mass surveillance.
A recent performance review suggested resources were also stretched.
A statutory review of the security services was due to begin shortly and the resignation immediately sparked intrigue.
An insider said Fletcher's departure came "out of the blue" and speculated that Fletcher had seen the terms of reference for the review.
There are fears within the agency that it may lead to proposals for a merger with the Security Intelligence Service (SIS), a move previously floated but ruled out by the Government.
There is also a view that SIS director Rebecca Kitteridge, a former Cabinet Secretary, is closer to Finlayson and is "flavour of the month".
Notably, Finlayson's statement announcing the resignation made much of the upcoming review.
He said it will "likely herald a further period of change".
"Mr Fletcher has decided that opening the door for a new director now means the same person can be involved in the review process, as well as in subsequent decision-making and implementation, rather than changing leadership mid-programme."
Opposition politicians seized on this.
Labour leader Andrew Little said he met Fletcher before Christmas, and was given no indication of his decision.
"It comes very much as a surprise.
"This makes me think that maybe they [the Government] have indicated something to him about what they want to achieve from the review that he doesn't like, and so he's going now," he said.
Fletcher's appointment, in January 2012, was mired in controversy.
Despite a lack of military or intelligence background, he was shoulder-tapped by Prime Minister John Key who has known him since boyhood.
Fletcher was the only candidate interviewed by an independent panel, after Key scrapped a shortlist of four prepared by a recruitment panel.
The Green Party called for cross-party agreement on the appointment of Fletcher's replacement.
"He has been director during a period of unprecedented politicisation of the intelligence services," MP Kennedy Graham said.
"It is crucial that there is cross-party support for the appointment of any future director and that the GCSB, and its director, are seen to be scrupulously politically neutral."
Finlayson would appoint an acting director.
The State Services Commission would run the recruitment of the next director.
Tech mogul Kim Dotcom, the best-known victim of illegal spying, greeted news of Fletcher's exit by tweeting that he is "leaving the sinking ship GCSB".