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.

Analysis

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

Comments

This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
 
  • rate this
    +4

    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
    +1

    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
    +4

    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
    0

    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
    0

    Comment number 928.

    Freedom? My bum....

 

Comments 5 of 932

 

More Politics stories

RSS

Conservative conference

  1.  
    10:22:

    David Cameron appears at 11:15 BST. In the meantime, here's our main story about his speech.

     
  2.  
    10:19:

    Just over 10 minutes until we get going again. The first of the big-name speakers will be International Development Secretary Justine Greening.

     
  3.  
    @TheGreenParty 10:17: The Green Party

    tweets: #Cameron=austerity forever; #Miliband=austerity-lite. If you're fed up with their policies join us. Please RT #CPC14

    The Green Party slogan
     
  4.  
    10:11: Newspaper round-up The Guardian

    Theresa May's speech is described as "both highly accomplished and highly disturbing", saying that for a Conservative home secretary to open by issuing a "frank challenge" to the police "felt like a kind of cultural revolution". She now proposes, however, a range of powers which "in classic abuse-of-civil liberty mode, could be misused", not least the so-called "snoopers' charter" which was "rightly blocked by the Liberal Democrats two years ago".

    Looking forward to David Cameron's speech today, Denis Campbell, the paper's health correspondent, notes that Labour has been outflanked by the Conservative leader on NHS spending, and says that unless Ed Miliband "outbids the Tories yet again he risks being accused of not matching his fine words about saving the NHS with the cash needed".

     
  5.  
    Email: haveyoursay@bbc.co.uk 10:08: Get involved

    Adam Rees: Labour keep banging on about the Tories privatising the NHS. I've been hearing it for as long as I remember. It's still free at the point of use. There are some NHS services provided by private companies for sure but who introduced it for the very first time? Labour!

     
  6.  
    @Andrew_ComRes 10:07: Andrew Hawkins, ComRes Chairman

    tweets: ComRes/ITV News poll helps explain Tory struggles - immigration & NHS are 2 of top 3 voter concerns but rate as worst policies

     
  7.  
    @iainmartin1 10:06: Iain Martin, Journalist

    tweets: And so far all the defections to UKIP have been men. Serious diversity problem. May require quotas.

     
  8.  
    10:00: Air strikes

    As Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon prepare to address the conference a little later, the Ministry of Defence has announced that RAF jets fired four missiles at Islamic State (IS) vehicles in Iraq overnight. The MoD says the strikes - aimed at an armed pick-up truck and a transport vehicle west of the Iraqi capital Baghdad - were "successful". Parliament approved UK military action against IS in Iraq last Friday.

     
  9.  
    09:59: Newspaper round-up The Daily Mail

    Quentin Letts, at the Daily Mail, sketches yesterday's "duel of two would-be leaders". Theresa May, "fervid and Thatcherish", gave the "speech that deserves to be remembered". The home secretary attacked Islamist extremism from a "defiantly centrist position", quoting the Koran and opening with a condemnation of racial bias in the exercise of police stop-and-search powers, perhaps seeing that "there are votes in centrism", he adds. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, was "full of jokes", entertaining the Tory faithful but "the closing passages of the speech - the serious bits - sagged".

     
  10.  
    09:58: Carswell not bitter

    Douglas Carswell, the former Conservative MP who has defected to UKIP, has some fond words for Tory chairman Grant Shapps. Writing on his blog, Mr Carswell says: "I like him, and I've made no secret of my admiration of him in the past. If he has had to say some fairly strong things as Conservative Party chairman over the past few days, he is doing it because he is Conservative Party chairman. I know Grant is a thoroughly decent person and have always enjoyed his company. I might have changed parties, but I'm not going start pretending that everyone that wears a blue rosette is bad. Grant is one of the good guys." Mr Carswell also says he gave up going to Conservative conferences long ago, because: "There never seemed to be many Conservatives. The lobbyists outnumber the activists. The fringe debates seemed so sterile."

    Douglas Carswell
     
  11.  
    @Freeman_George 09:50: George Freeman, Conservative MP

    tweets: As JeremyHunt said ystdy: unlocking potential of #NHS R+D in Genetics+DiseaseData is DNA of NHS: pooling our resources to prevent disease.

     
  12.  
    09:45: BBC website reader responds to MP's tweet

    Richard Heath responds to Andy Burnham, Labour MP's tweet at 09:16: Is he honestly trying to accuse the TORIES of making promises without saying where the money is going to come from? Did he not see any of the speeches by Balls and Miliband?

     
  13.  
    Email: haveyoursay@bbc.co.uk 09:45: Get involved

    Bob, Cambridge: It never ceases to amaze me when the general election is close by how the Tories send out sweeteners to get voters to stay. No chance Mr Cameron we all know what your party is about and always has been and that is to persecute the poor for the mistakes of the rich.

     
  14.  
    Email: haveyoursay@bbc.co.uk 09:41: Get involved

    Henry Francis Naudi in London: Whatever the main political parties may say about the NHS and their determination to improve it, the fact of the matter is that the main reasons for a 'distressed' NHS are (1) massive wastage in bureaucracy and admin; and (2) leeching of the NHS by people who are either not entitled to it for free or who manage to get round it by not paying their dues.

     
  15.  
    09:36: Joe Shute, for The Telegraph

    writes: David Cameron: Can he draw a line under his month to forget? Ahead of his Conservative Party conference curtain call, the prime minister has endured the most painful of Septembers. Read more

     
  16.  
    09:30: What channel? Dave, maybe?

    A bizarre scene as David Cameron prepares his speech apparently watched by... himself.

    David Cameron
     
  17.  
    @_James_Lyons_ 09:26: James Lyons, Daily Mirror Deputy Political Editor

    tweets: All sorts of rumours about another defection at #CPC14

     
  18.  
    Email: haveyoursay@bbc.co.uk 09:25: Get involved

    Colin in Gloucestershire: If we really want to keep the health service as it is people MUST take responsibility for themselves. Smoking and use of other drugs maybe your 'god given' right but it should not be the responsibility of the rest of the community to pay for the consequences. Even if Cameron can deliver on this promise, which will only come about by painful cuts elsewhere, that will only delay the day that society will no longer be willing to support people unwilling to take responsibility for themselves.

     
  19.  
    @BBCNormanS 09:23: Norman Smith, BBC

    tweets: Tory sources accuse @ukip of trying to make a somebody out of a nobody over Arron Banks defection #cpc14

     
  20.  
    09:18: Coming up at conference

    So, what else is happening at conference today? Business kicks off at the usual start of 10:30 BST - and will focus on international development, defence and foreign affairs. There'll be speeches from the secretaries of states for each respective government department - Justine Greening, Michael Fallon and Philip Hammond.

     
  21.  
    Tweet: @BBCPolitics 09:17: Get involved

    @thisisamy_ tweets: So ukip, 'the anti-establishment, people's party' attracts another millionaire donor. Yup, they're definitely on your side.

     
  22.  
    @andyburnhammp 09:16: Andy Burnham, Labour MP

    tweets: NHS facing huge funding pressures in 2015-20 Parliament. It is just not credible for Tories to make new promises without finding new money.

     
  23.  
    @matthancockmp 09:16: Matt Hancock, Conservative MP

    tweets: Delighted to see the £600m MoD contract for maintaining the Royal Navy go to Portsmouth - supporting 2000 local jobs #Portsmouth #jobs

     
  24.  
    09:15: Defence announcements

    In other news, the Ministry of Defence has announced it has awarded £3.2bn of contracts to support the management of the UK's naval bases, securing about 7,500 jobs. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon is due to make a speech to conference later this morning, so it's likely he'll make reference to this.

     
  25.  
    @Nigel_Farage 09:14: Nigel Farage, @UKIP Leader

    tweets: Arron Banks recognises that it is the European Union that is holding Britain and her businesses back. See blog post

     
  26.  
    09:13: Prop developer

    During his speech on Tuesday, London Mayor Boris Johnson wielded a brick to demonstrate his determination to get more homes built. Will David Cameron do something similar?

    Boris Johnson
     
  27.  
    09:12: Tory donor joins UKIP

    UKIP continues to cast a shadow over Conservative conference this week. One of the Tories' long-time donors is to announce later that he is joining Nigel Farage's party. Insurance entrepreneur Arron Banks has given the Conservatives more than £250,000 since David Cameron became leader - but will today present rivals UKIP with a £100,000 check. Mr Bank has also indicated he would like to stand as a candidate. The move comes after two Conservative MPs defected to UKIP - one as recently as Saturday, on the eve of Tory conference.

     
  28.  
    @Mike_Fabricant 09:10: Michael Fabricant, Conservative MP

    tweets: Another sunny day in Brum for #CPC14. An omen? See photo

     
  29.  
    09:08: Happy talk?

    David Cameron is expected to use his speech to show voters his party has more to offer them than austerity, and that with five more years the Conservatives, under his leadership, can improve people's lives.

     
  30.  
    09:06: Where is he?

    Samantha Cameron is in Birmingham to offer her husband support as he speaks later. Before that there's the obligatory walkabout.

    Samantha Cameron
     
  31.  
    09:05: More on the NHS

    The promise to protect NHS funding from departmental spending cuts is a repeat of the policy on which David Cameron fought the 2010 general election. Mr Cameron will say that a strong NHS is only made possible by a strong economy.

     
  32.  
    09:03: Midnight oil

    David Cameron has been working overnight on his speech. We are told he will deliver it using a script, rather than performing an attempted elephantine memory trick. This follows ridicule of Ed Miliband when he forgot a couple of passages of his address to the Labour conference last week.

    David Cameron
     
  33.  
    09:02: NHS spending pledge

    It is being reported that David Cameron will use his speech to pledge a yearly real-terms increase in NHS spending over the course of the next five-year Parliament, if his party secures victory at the election.

     
  34.  
    09:00: Good morning

    Hello and welcome to our live coverage of the final day of the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. The day will culminate in the highlight of any party conference: the leader's speech. David Cameron will address party activists at 11.15 BST, in what will be his final conference speech before the general election.

     

Features

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.