Intelligence chiefs break cover, with all guns blazing

The heads of Britain’s security services left MPs in no doubt whom they blame for aiding terrorism

There were repeated references to the front line from Britain’s intelligence chiefs when they appeared in the Commons. It soon became clear that they had emerged from the shadows with guns blazing against those they hold responsible for undermining their fight against terrorism.

The leaks from Edward Snowden, the American intelligence official, had weakened the already “fragile advantage” over potential bombers (Andrew Parker, MI5), causing a “sudden darkening” (Sir Iain Lobban, GCHQ). “Al-Qa’ida is lapping it up,” said Sir John Sawers, head of MI6.

The revelations by Mr Snowden, an IT contractor with the National Security Agency (NSA), had led, it was claimed, to terror suspects starting to change their methods of operation, making it harder to track them and leaving the public vulnerable to attacks. Some 34 terror plots had been foiled since the 7/7 attacks killed 52 people in London in 2005, Mr Parker stressed. Suspects were now holding “near daily discussions” of what they were learning from the media about efforts to stop them.

The hearing of the Intelligence and Security Committee was the first time the heads of the Secret Intelligence Service, the Security Service and the Government’s listening centre have given evidence in public, in what was described as a move towards greater transparency.

But it came at a controversial time. MI6 and MI5 have been accused of complicity in torture and GCHQ has been criticised for its work alongside the NSA in intercepting communications. Accusations and recriminations were quick to rise during the 92-minute session.

Sir Iain was asked by the committee if he could “guarantee” his agency was acting within UK law. “We do not spend our time listening to the telephone calls or reading the emails of the majority [of the population]. That would not be proportionate, that would not be legal and we wouldn’t do it,” he stressed. “We don’t employ the type of people who would be prepared to intrude into the private lives of ordinary people. If they were asked to snoop, I wouldn’t have the workforce, they’d leave the building.”

The head of GCHQ then went on the offensive. The leaks were helping not just Islamist extremists and organised crime, but people smugglers and paedophile rings which use the internet, he claimed. When the methods used against them are made public, the effect, he said, is one of “sudden darkening”.

“What we have seen over the last five months is near daily discussion amongst some of our targets,” he said. “We have actually seen chat around specific groups, including closer to home, discussing how to avoid what they now perceive to be vulnerable communications methods, or how to select communications which they now perceive not to be exploitable.”

Asked whether the discussions related directly to the Snowden revelations, he stated: “It is a direct consequence, I can say that explicitly. I am not going to compound the damage by being specific in public. I am very happy to be very specific in private.” Details would be given, he assured the MPs, in closed sessions.

Sir John Sawers took up the theme: “The leaks from Snowden have been very damaging. They put our operations at risk. It’s clear our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee; al-Qa’ida is lapping it up. Western security has suffered as a consequence.

“We’ve an extraordinarily difficult task. We have to identify and recruit agents in the most exposed places – in the higher reaches of al-Qa’ida, in the countries that are trying to do our country harm, secret states that are trying to do damage to us.

“We need to have the possibility of examining the intelligence, of drawing information that our partner agencies have, in order to identify those very brave individuals that are prepared to work with us against their undemocratic, secretive, oppressive societies, which cause us threat. If you end up diminishing our ability to use technology, we will be less able to have that advantage… and our country will be less safe.”

Asked about government compensation to people tortured supposedly with the collusion of the intelligence service, Sir John said: “I don’t accept the allegations made against us. We are absolutely clear we only operate within the framework of the law.”

Mr Parker warned that the terrorist threat showed no sign of diminishing. “Several thousand” suspects are being monitored in the UK, he said. And “terror tourism” is booming, with hundreds of Muslim extremists heading to Syria to take part in jihad.

Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
world cup 2014A history of the third-place play-offs
Tommy Ramone performing at The Old Waldorf Nightclub in 1978 in San Francisco, California.
peopleDrummer Tommy was last surviving member of seminal band
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
The Mexico chief finally lets rip as his emotions get the better of him
world cup 2014
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
Life and Style
Several male celebrities have confessed to being on a diet, including, from left to right, Hugh Grant, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ryan Reynolds
...and the weight loss industry is rubbing its hands in glee
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
arts + entsReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice