People with dyslexia struggle to varying degrees with reading, writing and spelling - but are often are equipped with precisely the skills and thought processes the Cheltenham-based spying agency looks for in staff, Fleming said.
Speaking at a symposium at the Science Museum in London, he said dyslexics were an important part of the "mix of minds" employed by GCHQ.
Problem solving and spotting connections is at the heart of intelligence work and our many dyslexic soldiers excel in their roles exactly because of this ability. Great to hear such powerful words from Jeremy Fleming @GCHQ.#MadeByDyslexia #ValueofDyslexia https://t.co/x5DiLsEDAI— Intelligence Corps (@Int_Corps) October 21, 2019
"I have everyone from the country’s best mathematicians, some of the most talented engineers and hopefully some of the best analysts. I also have people keeping the show on the road, making the machines work, making sure we are giving our best every day and I can see dyslexics in every bit of the business. Now we specifically, in some of our campaigns around analytical skills, are looking for people with that sort of neural difference,” he said.
Asked why dyslexics could make good intelligence gatherers, Fleming alleged it was due to their ability to simplify complicated processes, work collaboratively and make connections between different concepts.
"It's really hard to over-characterise it - some of the things around joining the dots, simplification, seeing the bigger picture [and] team working. We’re an organisation of 10,000... nothing happens unless we work properly in teams. Some characteristics in the neuro-diverse and dyslexic [community] are really at the core of how we team work,” he explained.
Other speakers at the event - run by the charity Made By Dyslexia - included Princess Beartrice, Richard Branson and health secretary Matt Hancock, who told of their past struggles with dyslexia and how they’ve come to embrace it.
The charity commissioned research which found only three percent of the public believe that dyslexia is a positive trait, while 73 percent of dyslexic people hide it from employers. Dyslexia, which is a genetic trait, affects at least one in ten people in the UK, but often goes undiagnosed leading to children struggling at school and losing confidence in their abilities.
Fleming went on to note GCHQ runs huge outreach programmes in schools to try and interest youngsters in espionage at an early age, and an apprenticeship where recruits are three to four times more likely to have dyslexia than the national average.
GCHQ avowedly targeting potentially vulnerable people for recruitment is yet to spark public outcry, but British spy agency activities in this regard have proven highly controversial in the past. In 2001, it was revealed MI6 had recruited Platon Obukhov, the schizophrenic son of former Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister, as an informant in the full knowledge he was mentally disturbed.
MI6 whistleblower Richard Tomlinson exposed how agency staff referred to Platon as “completely off his rocker”, but due to internal secret intelligence targets overlooked both the inherent moral issues arising from his recruitment, and the question of whether any ‘intelligence’ he provided would be credible. After Platon was caught, he received a prison sentence for spying.
Tomlinson recorded in his book The Big Breach, which the UK government attempted to ban, that Platon arrived to his first briefing meeting with MI6 in a Mickey Mouse hat, clutching the manuscript of a “manic and twisted book” he was writing.
“We’ve been asking ourselves for years how an experienced security service could recruit a mentally ill informant. We thought it was stupidity or incompetence. Now it appears they were simply motivated by ignoble intentions. You couldn't imagine someone less suitable for the job. In some areas he was very knowledgeable - in other areas he had the mind of a six-year-old. I have no respect for MI6 – they’re simply scoundrels who’ve destroyed my son's life and devastated our family. They exploited him in a cowardly and ugly fashion. The whole affair has been a tragedy for us,” his mother Olga told The Observer.