UK intelligence work defends freedom, say spy chiefs


GCHQ director Sir Iain Lobban: "We don't want to delve into innocent emails and phone calls"

Related Stories

Britain's security services defend - rather than undermine - freedom and democracy, the head of MI5 has said.

Andrew Parker was being grilled alongside GCHQ director Sir Iain Lobban and MI6 chief Sir John Sawers in an unprecedented public hearing.

He said 34 terror plots had been disrupted since the 7 July, 2005, attacks in London.

The three men were quizzed on the work of their organisations by the Intelligence and Security Committee.

The committee of MPs and peers normally takes evidence from the security chiefs in secret.

But they have been under pressure to be more open after leaks by ex-US security contractor Edward Snowden revealed widespread spying by GCHQ and the US National Security Agency.

'Walk out'

MI6 chief Sir John Sawers warned the politicians that "our adversaries were rubbing their hands with glee, al Qaeda is lapping it up" in the wake of the Snowden revelations, adding: "The leaks from Snowden have been very damaging, they've put our operations at risk".

GCHQ chief Sir Iain Lobban said activists in the Middle East and "closer to home" had been monitored discussing ways of switching away from communications they "now perceived as vulnerable".

Agencies' official tasks

  • Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ): Safety and security of the UK's cyber- connections and infrastructure
  • Security Service (MI5): Protection of national security against threats from espionage, terrorism and sabotage
  • Secret Intelligence Service (MI6): Collects Britain's foreign intelligence

Source: GCHQ, MI5 and MI6

He also suggested the leaks could help paedophiles avoid detection, and said the success of intelligence operations required the country's enemies to be "unaware or uncertain" of methods.

The Intelligence and Security Committee has already carried out a limited investigation into claims that GCHQ used the American National Security Agency's vast Prism programme, which gathers information from internet companies, to circumvent UK laws.

Sir Iain was asked about these claims, but said his agency acted within the law and rejected the idea that they were involved in widespread snooping.

He said: "We do not spend our time listening to the telephone calls or reading the emails of the majority. That would not be proportionate, that would not be legal, and we would not do it."

He said the type of people employed by GCHQ were focused on combating terrorism and criminals and would "walk out" if they were asked to spy on innocent people.

Andrew Parker, John Sawers and Iain Lobban The three men were questioned for 90 minutes in a parliamentary committee room

Andrew Parker, who handles agents within the UK, told the committee a total of 34 terror plots had been foiled since 2005 including "one or two" plots aimed at causing mass casualties. Most had been foiled as result of the intervention of the police and security services.

He said MI5 was aware of "several thousand individuals in this country who I would describe as supporting violent extremism or are engaged in it" and "almost all" of the plots had involved some of "these people".

He also warned about the growth of "terrorist tourism", where British nationals travel abroad for training before return to the UK to plot attacks, with the civil war in Syria currently proving a magnet for those seeking "jihadi" activity among groups linked to al Qaeda.

Committee chairman Sir Malcolm Rifkind began the 90 minute hearing - televised with a two-minute time delay to prevent the inadvertent release of sensitive secrets - by saying it was a "very significant step forward in the transparency of our intelligence agencies".

The agency chiefs explained what they saw their role as in a post-Cold War world and whether they were worth the £2bn in taxpayer money they receive each year.

'Not James Bond'

Mr Parker, who took over as head of MI5 earlier this year, said it was a "proportionate investment against the threats the country faces".

Responding to concerns raised by leaks by ex-US security contractor Edward Snowden, he said: "The suggestion that what we do is somehow compromising freedom and democracy - of course we believe the opposite to be the case.


Seeing three spooks in a row on the telly is unprecedented.

But forget thoughts of James Bond, Skyfall and all the rest of it. And forget too that image of spies hiding in bushes.

The "soup of the internet," as it was described, is the big challenge.

One might expect that men whose organisations operate in the dark might have looked reluctant public witnesses.

But they appeared rather keen - with soundbites at the ready - to spell out their anger at the intelligence leaks by the former US spy Edward Snowden.

There was no spy-speak or acronyms when Sir John Sawers of MI6 said al-Qaeda "is lapping it up" and "our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee".

And the session concluded with news that it won't be the last: Sir Malcolm Rifkind concluded by saying "we look forward to further open sessions".

"The work we do is addressing directly threats to this country, to our way of life and to the people who live here."

MI6 chief Sir John Sawers was quizzed about why the security services had failed to predict the fall of the Soviet Union, 9/11 and the Arab Spring.

He said that was not their job, telling the committee: "We acquire the secrets that other countries don't want us to know... we are not all-knowing specialists in what's going to happen next month or next year."

Both he and Mr Parker stressed that they would never condone or be complicit in the torture of terror suspects, but Sir John admitted the security services were not adequately resourced or trained to cope with the scale of the terror threat in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

"It took us some time to adapt to the scale of the threat we faced," he told the committee, but they had "learned a huge amount over the last 12 years" and he was "satisfied" with the "rigorous compliance procedures now in place".

Sir John, whose agency runs spying operations around the world, said agents in the field did not operate in isolation "like James Bond" and there was round-the-clock support available to them if they needed it.

MI6 chief Sir John Sawers: "The leaks from Snowden have been very damaging"

"We have a system to enable guidance to be issued from head office and if we don't feel clearly enough it falls one side of the line or the other - or the facts are just uncertain - then we will wake the foreign secretary up and ask him for a view one way or the other."

'Mass spying'

Documents leaked to the Guardian newspaper by Mr Snowden - who is currently in Moscow where he has sought sanctuary from the US - revealed that agencies are able to tap into the internet communications of millions of ordinary citizens through GCHQ's Tempora programme.

Although the committee cleared the agency of any wrongdoing in the 197 specific intelligence reports it looked at, it is now undertaking a wider inquiry into whether the laws governing surveillance are adequate for the internet age.

How intelligence is gathered

How intelligence is gathered

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who created the world wide web, has said encryption cracking by UK and US spy agencies is "appalling and foolish".

Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who worked with Mr Snowden on stories for the Guardian about spying by the National Security Agency and GCHQ, said the Parliamentary system had, so far, failed to hold Britain's intelligence agencies to account.

"There was a huge suspicion-less system of mass spying that the British people and the American people had no idea had been built in their name and with their money," he said.

But he added: "I believe that that system can bring about real accountability if there's the political will."

Sir David Ormand, former head of GCHQ, earlier defended the closeness of Britain's intelligence relationship with the US, telling BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We have the brains. They have the money. It's a collaboration that's worked very well."

Asked why there had been such a fierce debate about the Communications Data Bill, dubbed the "snooper's charter" by critics, when GCHQ was already gathering large quantities of data covertly, he said the agency was "primarily a foreign intelligence agency" and the proposed legislation concerned British data.

He added: "You shouldn't be looking to GCHQ to provide what can very much more cheaply and easily provided by the internet service providers. That requires legislation and Parliament got itself in a bit of a tangle over the details of that legislation."

Sir David also dismissed Sir Tim Berners-Lee's criticisms, telling BBC Breakfast he thought the scientist was "probably exaggerating for effect, in order to get his point across and fire a shot across the bows of the intelligence agencies".


More on This Story

Related Stories


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    "...but said his agency acted within the law..." Which law? Why don't we know what that "law" entails? I also wonder what makes politicians think that they, or their families, are not subject to surveillance. Ignorance?
    I think their encrypted phones would be a very juicy target.

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    Having served18 years in trouble spots around the globe, I have som knowldge of the kind of people the US/UK/German/French/Dutch etc security services spooks,spies whatver you choose to call them,protect the unsuspecting and naive herd from. Currently, protesters are free to condemn govts/ security forces: if they want to stay that way, they should hope our spies are better snoopers than the rest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    Main issue with this mass data gathering is that government systems have proved no more secure than any other. So while we not distrust them with our details we should worry it falls into criminal hands.

  • Comment number 209.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. - Benjamin Franklin

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    if you have nothing to hide why worry.

    Birmingham 6
    Guildford 4

    Just innocent Irishmen who had nothing to worry about:)

  • rate this

    Comment number 206.

    "We do not spend our time listening to the telephone calls or reading the emails of the majority"- Sir Iain

    Of course you don't. There aren't enough people in the world to do that.

    You are recording everything, ready to play back at a later date. And you may not listen personally but you do use a large computer and voice recognition to listen out for keywords, which is just a bad.

    Cow dung.

  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    Think about it:

    They think they can spy on anyone.
    They think that torture is acceptable.
    They think using and arming terrorists is acceptable.

    It's about time They answered for their acts of Terrorism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    195 JohnB - but remember that a lot of the problems were brought on us by politicians activities - the tories had a 3 line whip FOR the iraq war, for example - and the security services failed to point out the problems and defects. Are the security forces too right wing?

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    "No, please don't listen in, i'm doing something I shouldn't be."

    The only reason for being against.

    How is it an evasion of privacy if some one i'm never going to know or even act on it the information knows something about me.

    Plus people that NEED privacy MUST have something to hid.

    And better them, than the media.

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    I am glad GCHQ MI6 and MI5 are doing what they do, about time, if you have nothing to hide why worry. if it was not for these guys god knows what would happen in the is country. I think the government should, let them to the job they were takes with without all the red tape!

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    Did I miss the discussion of extraordinary rendition?

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    They defend the freedom of the elite's only so the status quo can be maintained. Terrorism is a smoke screen and the snooping on EVERYONE is so they can get a heads up of any potential revolutions and head for the hills.

    American/UK foreign policy creates terrorists, stop invading countries using false intelligence as justification and terrorism would stop.

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    I would love not have these people or their organisations. I would love a world without the armed forces or the police. Thing is I want to live safely and I am eternally grateful these people provide the security that allow my family and I to do so. There are always going to be people at home and across the world that want to do us harm. Rouges will always exist. Let's just say thanks for once.

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    160.JonB, I think it was Hazel Blears but I didn't see/notice the wink. Well, it was her govt. that signed up to the Bush administration deceit and Leadership by instilling fear into Citizens. We are now seeing & living the consequences of their actions in govt. and will continue to do so, for years and generations to come.

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    Let's not forget that in Afghanistan, at least, it's the "insurgents" who actually own the country; it is ourselves, blindly obeying the US, who are the invaders. And the UK troops stationed there are not heroes .. they're victims of politicians who lack the backbone to say No to the Whitehouse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    I'd suspect the Terrorists are more likely be rubbing their hands in glee at the social impact that have had on supposedly 'Freedom-loving' societies.

    Benjamin Franklin must be spinning in his grave at generating speeds by now...

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    Some strange comments here - and a worry for freedom - many of these comments seem to have forgotten that the enemy is the people trying to attack our lives... not the Government and the security services trying to protect us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    @bluest-man - Jesus and their is some Dross.

    Is this what the Americans call surveillance:

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    It was in the news today that the UK population will grow by 10m in the next 25 years - from immigration and the children of immigrants. If you think we have a problem with terrorism now, wait for 25 years! If you don't want rights taken away, take away the rationale for the spooks to pry ever more into our lives. 10m more - most of whom will be koran waiving bigots.


Page 37 of 47


More Politics stories



  • Jesse, Milo and JudahNo kidding

    The family with 34 children - and they're adding two more

  • Lost itemsLost and found

    The strange things passengers leave on the Tube

  • German cabin Stollen Christmas

    How German markets captured the UK's imagination

  • Man and dog on dark winter morningSolstice lag

    Why mornings will keep getting darker after 21 December

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.