Snowden leaks 'worst ever loss to British intelligence'

Sir David Omand Sir David called the leaks the "most catastrophic ever"

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Leaked surveillance programme details have been the "most catastrophic loss to British intelligence ever", a senior UK security expert has said.

Former No 10 adviser Sir David Omand said he assumed data leaked by ex-US intelligence worker Edward Snowden was being analysed by Russia and China.

He said the breach was worse than that by the Cambridge spy ring in the 1950s.

The Guardian has said it will continue to publish leaks by Mr Snowden, who is now in Russia.

Meanwhile, Business Secretary Vince Cable said the newspaper had performed "a very considerable public service" - appearing to contradict his party leader Nick Clegg who described the publication of the leaks as damaging.

But former Home Secretary Jack Straw hit out at the Guardian saying its stance was "indulgent irresponsibility" which did not help protect the public.

'Proper oversight'

Sir David, the former head of the UK's communications surveillance centre GCHQ, told the Times: "You have to distinguish between the original whistleblowing intent to get a debate going, which is a responsible thing to do, and the stealing of 58,000 top-secret British security documents and who knows how many American documents, which is seriously, seriously damaging.

"The assumption the experts are working on is that all that information or almost all of it will now be in the hands of Moscow and Beijing.

"It's the most catastrophic loss to British intelligence ever, much worse than Burgess and Maclean."

Donald Duart Maclean and Guy Burgess were among a group of British officials who met at Cambridge University and passed information to the Soviet Union during World War II and into the 1950s, other notable members being Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt.

In May, Mr Snowden leaked information to the Guardian about mass surveillance programmes such as the US National Security Agency's Prism and GCHQ's Tempora operations.

Cambridge Spies Donald Maclean, left, and Guy Burgess, right Maclean, left, and Burgess passed western secrets to the Soviet Union.

Mr Cable told BBC Radio 4' Today programme: "I think Mr Snowden's contribution is two-fold. One is a positive one - the whistleblowing, the other is more worrying which is a large amount of genuinely important intelligence material does seem to have been passed across.

"We do need to have proper political oversight of the intelligence services and arguably we haven't until now."

On Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Mr Clegg said stories in the Guardian about GCHQ "would have been of immense interest to people who want harm".

There was however a legitimate debate to be had about the use of mass surveillance programmes, he added.

Earlier this year, the government's Intelligence and Security committee's powers to scrutinise the work of the security services were increased.

But a source close to Mr Clegg denied a suggestion made by Mr Cable on Today that the deputy prime minister was seeking a specific review of the system of political oversight of the intelligence services.

He said that in the coming months there would only be discussions within government about some of the issues thrown up the Snowden case.

Mr Straw's comments came in an interview to be broadcast on the BBC's Sunday Politics Wales.

He said the Guardian had a "sense of power of having these secrets and excitement... about these secrets has gone to their heads".

"They are blinding themselves about the consequence and also showing an extraordinary naivety and arrogance in implying that they are in a position to judge whether or not particular secrets which they publish are - are or not - likely to damage the national interest," said Mr Straw.

Temporary asylum

On Tuesday the director general of the security service MI5, Andrew Parker, warned in a speech the disclosure of the "reach and limits" of GCHQ's capabilities was a "gift" to terrorists.

Mr Parker dismissed suggestions that the agencies were trawling through people's private lives for anything that looked interesting as "utter nonsense".

Asked about Mr Parker's suggestion, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said: "They will always say that. You read histories of intelligence and you go back to the 1990s and the security people were saying the same."

Mr Snowden has been given temporary asylum in Russia. In the US, he faces charges of theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified intelligence.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 401.

    The most damning indictment of the secret services was Chris Huhne's revelation that while he was a Cabinet Minister, and a member of the committee that oversees the Security Services, he knew nothing of these sales of huge amounts of personal data to the US. These people act outside of democracy, and are a law unto themselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 400.

    To those shills on here today supporting or paid off by the government:

    If you want everything you do and say monitored and watched, and you want your media sanitised and censored, then do the rest of us a favour and move to a country where it is accepted: China or North Korea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 399.

    What do you call 'freedom'
    Freedom to allow thousands of UK hating Islamist into he UK who want to kill us"

    That is a completely different issue, debate here is about intelligent servcies and publishing.

    Also, not all terrorists are muslim, have you forgotten about the irish terrorists, If I remember, they weren't Islamist!

  • rate this

    Comment number 398.

    5 Minutes ago

    357. DecayingCorpse
    "If they stop only one terrorist attack for the sake of trawling through people's emails, I'm happy with that."

    Really? Around 150000 people die from cancer every year, yet the NHS/research is on a shoestring. One person dies from terrorism and you're happy with billions being spent on 'National Security'?


  • rate this

    Comment number 397.

    A newspaper that few bother to read is setting itself up as the arbiter of what's in our national security interests, and the BBC is yet again acting like that newspaper's provisional wing on the airwaves.

    To those who regard terrorism as 'trivial' - you probably don't mind because it's mainly perpetrated by the left and islamism, which suits your prejudices.

  • rate this

    Comment number 396.

    Hey! Mr Snowden, can I tell you a secret.....................!

    I bet this guy tells everyone what he's getting them for Christmas because he can't keep his mouth shut!

    Mind you, his family and friends will be gutted when they all find out they're getting a set of little dolls that all fit inside one another!

    Russia. You can keep him! The west doesn't want this traitor back.

  • rate this

    Comment number 395.

    Mr Snowden is alleged to have broken the law, and should therefore be put on trial, where all the evidence can be presented to a jury, and a verdict arrived at.
    Of course he is innocent until proven guilty, however if he is found to have wilfully helped enemies and terrorists, he should be punished according to the legal system. Simple.

  • rate this

    Comment number 394.

    There's a distinct air of hypocrisiy from people who support the likes of Snowden and Assange leaking stuff.
    Look at the outrage when peoples personal details get hacked/leaked by organisations and govt dept's yet when it comes to those 2 leaking confidential data suddenly that's ok.
    What they've done is an act of treason, they know that,its why they're on the run.

  • rate this

    Comment number 393.

    Hang on - there's a news report of Syrian civilians being killed, but we're not allowed to comment (a first for Syria!) - anything to do with it being the Rebels who did the killing?

  • rate this

    Comment number 392.

    I remember the IRA bombings. My son missed the Tavistick Square bombing by a dangerously close margin. And I'll chance the minor loss of life in terrorist "incidents" over loss of freedom every time. The security forces mostly do a good job, but they MUST do it as citizens in a democracy - not just as "We know best, we'll do whatever we think fit and you're not entitled to question what we do".

  • rate this

    Comment number 391.

    America is still trying to control the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 390.

    Politicians of all colours have come out and told us that it is essential for the country’s protection that GCHQ amass the secrets that are gathered in the way that they do.

    The blindingly obvious question that has not been asked of us, the people is;

    “Do we want to be protected in that way?”

  • rate this

    Comment number 389.

    Anthony Blunt was a traitor apparently-didnt stop him working for our German queen and go unpunished-this country is rotten from the neck up

  • rate this

    Comment number 388.

    "The assumption the experts are working on is that all that information or almost all of it will now be in the hands of Moscow and Beijing."

    This is pure scaremongering, if they were experts and had worked on something, it wouldn't be an assumption, it would be a deduction.
    Don't be afraid, they're just trying to make you think Snowden's the bad-guy, despite giving us freedom of information.

  • rate this

    Comment number 387.

    adingy 359. This is the press. It's just this time they aren't doing the hacking, they are just reporting on others doing it. I don't see the guardian has done anything wrong. This is the kind of press I like. Not fear-mongers, looking after the share interests of their owners. Btw - I would reword your use of the word 'personal' with 'corporate'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 386.

    When you look at the failure of our governments, all of our governments, to manage for the benefit of the majority and their paranoia about us finding out anything about their misdeeds, it is no wonder they are concerned about people like Snowden. All they have to do is move to open government: no commercial confidentiality on government contracts would be a start.

  • rate this

    Comment number 385.

    " legum servi sumus ut liberi esse possimus" just in case my previous comments were not clear enough...

  • rate this

    Comment number 384.

    IMO the worst leak that's ever happened is the loss of millions of Child Benefit records from a privately run postal firm - while Russian delegates were visiting the site.
    Such records will be used to coerce captured soldiers during interrogation with threats to their family.

  • rate this

    Comment number 383.

    Who cares what the Guardian writes?

    They have a readership of 2% of the population, while less than 1% actually buys it.

    Thankfully they no longer have the ear of the government as nearly everything they ever advocated went spectacularly wrong. So just ignore them as the noisy irrelevance that they are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 382.

    @353 Talbyr

    The cold war never ended and never will..It just entered a more PR phase and the hard rhetoric disappeared, but the nationalist intentions of both superpowers stills goes on, but behind the scenes..hence why we still have spying and always will


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