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"

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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".


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  • rate this

    Comment number 932.

    Wish one of them would have done the "you cant handle the truth!" speech

    "You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives.. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, & then questions the manner in which I provide it" A Few Good Men(1992)

  • rate this

    Comment number 931.

    The Trio, defensive, worried and shameful all look on tenterhooks. They try to create a need to be in that seat, where as for any reflective person who should peer, the result would seem transparent from the get go.

    The enemies of our country and the united kingdom as a whole, were created by ourselves, it's happening right now in Syria! This is NOT Edward Snowden's fault! It's our governments!

  • rate this

    Comment number 930.

    It’s a shame Snowden is stuck in Russia. It would have been interesting to know what links there were between US, UK and Russian intelligence on problem countries around Russia’s boarder. Of course it would be rude (or dangerous) for Snowden to release something that might embarrass his hosts. I bet the US now wishes he was in S. America.

  • rate this

    Comment number 929.

    SMART ASSES how did you know I was white, have you been spying on me. With you son I think the phrase "shooting ducks in a barrel" apply, too easy. TONYINSELBY@916 now you gone and told them you work in Tesco's they be able to find you now mate,OAKTWIG @923 I would like to reply but like OLLYINLDONDON cannot understand a word of you entry, try English it does help you know. SMART ASSES bed and now

  • rate this

    Comment number 928.

    Freedom? My bum....

  • rate this

    Comment number 927.

    A shame that the security chiefs couldn't ask the politicians one single question.
    Something like:- "Why are you making our jobs more difficult by letting anyone come into our country - and not kicking out non-indigenous trouble-makers?"
    Committee chairman Sir Malcolm Rifkind: "It's against UK and EU laws, Civil Rights, and... "
    MI6 chief Sir John Sawers: "... YOU'RE the real threat from within!".

  • rate this

    Comment number 926.

    892 AnEnglish

    "No!, but the spooks have properly saved millions of people's lives over the last century"

    Millions - are you sure? And how many lives have they destroyed? Are they really worth £2b of our money?

    Quite franky I found the 'chiefs' very unprepossessing

    It seems a cloak and dagger game played by overgrown schoolboys

  • rate this

    Comment number 925.

    @913 callisto

    Glad to see your all for them gathering everything you do online, think about it this way, how many times in the last ten years has the gov' lost databases/laptops/discs containing peoples info, now ask yourself what have you got to lose, it would only take one mistake/keystroke and info/personal details about you can end up online.

    Your answer should be i have my identity to lose

  • Comment number 924.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 923.

    #904 Mohan

    "Not as much as you are getting on my nerves with your pseudo babble and paranoia. "

    -- Can´t take NO for an answer ?

    MH --where have you been ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 922.

    909. quietoaktree

    "You are implying that many of us in the UK falsely believe we are free when in fact we are not? Are you not free to do as you please? To say as you want? To criticise your government? To vote? To protest? To practice your chosen religion?"

    --ever tried saying --NO!

    (with change occurring)

    Please clarify which of these you cannot do or are likely to change? I am intrigued.

  • rate this

    Comment number 921.

    This country of ours is NOT at risk of anything except our health worrying about things that do not affect the majority therefore get rid of all of these so called agencies and use the money to improve health and education which is what people really want.

  • rate this

    Comment number 920.

    Re: 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. ( And how come GCHQ & NSA intercepts not warn the public about the corrupt banking that goes on that threw us all into harsh austerity?

    Corrupt corporations have caused way more harm to us all than any terrorist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 919.

    "It is not just our responsibility as citizens, it is our duty as LOYAL military officers to expose the real perpetrators of 9/11 and bring them to justice, no matter how hard, how long it takes, how much we have to suffer, or where it leads us. We believe the official account of 9/11 as defined in the 9/11 Commission Report is grossly inaccurate and fatally flawed."

  • rate this

    Comment number 918.

    I deliberately didn't try to watch any of these people before the nice Sir Malcolm Rifkind's committee. The whole exercise was bound to be nugatory.

    Were any of these grandees asked if the security services STILL colluded in the murder of opponents of the state on United Kingdom territory as their organisations did during the troubles in Northern Ireland?

  • rate this

    Comment number 917.

    I'm going to Aunty Maud's for tea on friday.

    That could easily mean "On wednesday I'm going to collect the bomb"

    Its REALLY that simple and no 'intelligence agency' would pick up something as innocent.

    These agencies make out WE are at risk, but it is in reality, the Politicians who feel the fear. It is they or their regimes the terrorists want to get rid of.

    Its all a con [spiracy]

  • rate this

    Comment number 916.

    This "we've foiled umpteen terrorist plots but we can't give you any details" nonsense reminds me of the omnipresent drunk at the end of the bar who was "something to do with the SAS but can't say any more because of the Official Secrets Act" (taps nose). Don't believe him, don't believe them. Of course, I foiled an attempt to overthrow democracy at my local Tesco, but I can't tell you about it

  • rate this

    Comment number 915.

    Read post 200 by "Argent Pur" (currently no. 3 in the ratings) .... couldn't put it any better myself.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 914.

    Any competent terrorist network will encrypt their messages and send them over TOR, unreadable and untraceable. This blanket snooping on conventional communication will only catch the amateur incompetents who probably haven't got the ability to put a proper bomb together in the first place, and even they can use codewords to avoid the keyword searches.

  • rate this

    Comment number 913.

    The mere idea that a bunch of people are being paid to waste their time looking at my mails, or listen it my calls is unimagiable. But if they need to listen in to weedle out the individuals who would harm ,or think to harm, my family, friends or members of my society, then I am for it. Snowden and Manning have done nothing but endanger my freedom. They should rot. I support GCHQ, NSA and freedom


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