Terrorists ‘rubbing hands with glee’ at Snowden leaks, says UK spy chief
Heads of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 appear before Westminster intelligence and security committee
From left: the director general of security service MI5, Andrew Parker; the chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), John Sawers; and the director of GCHQ, Iain Lobban, at the first parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee in London yesterday. Photograph: PA Wire
Terrorists have changed their methods of communications as “a direct consequence” of the Guardian’s revelations about the extent of surveillance by intelligence services, the head of one of the UK’s top spying agencies has declared.
The disclosures by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden have been discussed “in specific terms” by terrorist groups, said Sir Iain Lobban, the head of the Cheltenham-based Government Communications HQ (GCHQ).
His declaration came during a two-hour public appearance alongside the head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, and the head of MI5, Andrew Parker, before Westminster’s intelligence and security committee – the first time such a hearing has taken place in public.
The MI6 director general was unrepentant in his belief that the Snowden allegations have damaged the ability of intelligence services to protect the United States and the United Kingdom: “[They] have been very damaging.
“They put our operations at risk. It’s clear our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee, al-Qaeda is lapping it up . . . and western security has suffered as a consequence,” he told MPs and members of the House of Lords.
The public appearance by the trio was hailed as “a very significant step forward in the transparency of our intelligence agencies” by the committee chairman, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, but critics said politicians had failed to tackle them firmly on key subjects, including rendition.
The hearing was broadcast with a two-minute delay – to allow time for accidental disclosures of confidential information to be deleted, but MPs and peers had agreed not to ask anything that might lead to the revelation of secret information in public.
Since the July 7th attacks in London eight years ago, 34 plots in Britain – some of which would have caused “mass casualties” if they had gone ahead – have been stopped, while over 300 people have been jailed.
Meanwhile, Mr Lobban rejected allegations that GCHQ has infiltrated everyone’s emails: “We do not spend our time listening to the telephone calls or reading the emails of the majority, the vast majority that would not be proportionate, it would not be legal. We do not do it.”
He defended the surveillance that does exist: “’It would be very nice if terrorists or serious criminals used a particular method of communication and everybody else used something else. That is not the case.”
However, he insisted that GCHQ does not delve into innocent emails and phone calls and does not employ the kind of people who would enjoy doing so. If asked to snoop, his people would “leave the building”.
Questioned about Northern Ireland, Mr Parker said the numbers still involved in terrorism are “a residue from a bygone era”, while the number of attacks is decreasing and the numbers of those being convicted are rising.