LONDON – Britain’s top spy chiefs warned in an unprecedented television appearance on Thursday that Al-Qaeda and other enemies were “lapping up” intelligence leaks by Edward Snowden and using them to change the way they operate.
The heads of the foreign spy agency MI6, the domestic intelligence service MI5 and the electronic listening station GCHQ however used their appearance before a parliamentary committee to deny that Britons were under mass surveillance.
In a hearing held under tight security and broadcast with a two-minute time delay to prevent slip-ups, MI6 boss John Sawers said Snowden’s revelations of US and British spy programs were a gift to Al-Qaeda and other terrorists.
“Our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee. Al-Qaeda is lapping it up,” Sawers told the Intelligence and Security committee.
“The leaks from Snowden have been very damaging, they put our operations at risk.”
GCHQ boss Iain Lobban said his service had picked up “near daily discussion” among extremist groups in the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere about lessons to be learned from the Snowden files.
“We have actually seen chat around specific terrorist groups, including closer to home, discussing how to avoid what they now perceive to be vulnerable communications methods,” Lobban said.
Snowden, a former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who has been granted temporary asylum in Russia, has revealed massive US electronic surveillance programmes in recent months, sending shockwaves around the world.
The leaks have strained Washington’s ties with its allies over suggestions that it has eavesdropped on dozens of world leaders, including by tapping the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Thursday’s hearing marked an unprecedented joint public appearance for the heads of the three British intelligence agencies, who could be seen on television sitting in a row as they answered questions from lawmakers.
They insisted that they worked hard to balance national security with citizens’ right to privacy.
“We do not spend our time listening to the telephone calls or reading the emails of the majority. It would not be proportionate, it would not be legal.
We do not do it,” Lobban told the committee.
“We don’t want to delve into innocent emails and phonecalls.”
Spying activity ‘proportionate to threats’
The spy chiefs said there was a growing terror threat at home and abroad, with “Al-Qaeda and its many, many branches” as the biggest threat to British security.
Britain’s intelligence agencies had disrupted 34 terror plots since the July 7, 2005 bombings on London’s transport system, MI5 director general Andrew Parker told the committee.
Syria was a particular problem with a number of Britons “in the low hundreds” having gone to fight with jihadist groups in the civil war there, Parker said.
“Syria has become a very attractive place for people to go for that reason — those who support or sympathise with the Al-Qaeda ideological message,” he said.
Parker insisted that the work of the intelligence services was a “proportionate” response to the terrorist threats faced by Britain.
Sawers meanwhile emphatically denied that British agents used torture as a means of countering threats to national security.
“We do not participate in, incite, encourage or condone mistreatment or torture, and that is absolute,” he said.
British newspaper the Guardian later defended its decision to publish Snowden’s leaks.
“The disastrous loss of classified data was not the responsibility of journalists but of the intelligence community itself,” said a Guardian spokeswoman.
“It is only the involvement of global newspapers that prevented this information from spilling out across the web and genuinely causing a catastrophic leak,” she added.
GCHQ has been in the spotlight in recent weeks because Snowden’s leaks have suggested close collaboration between the British listening post and its US counterpart, the NSA, to harvest vast quantities of data from ordinary citizens’ communications.
The German government called in Britain’s ambassador for questioning this week following a media report that London has been operating a secret listening post from its Berlin embassy.