Prism scandal: Foreign Secretary William Hague's vagueness on US spying fails to reassure MPs and public over covert GCHQ deal with NSA

Civil liberties groups say Government’s approach to secrecy is similar to that of China

William Hague faced anger from MPs of all parties and civil liberties campaigners as he refused to be drawn on claims that Britons could have been spied on by GCHQ through a covert deal with the American security agencies.

Mr Hague would not even confirm the operation of the Prism programme in a Commons statement on Monday, even though its existence has been corroborated by the American government.

According to Whitehall sources, the use of all such operations has to be authorised by the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary – Theresa May – or another secretary of state.

GCHQ is understood to have requested information from the Americans but had no say on which particular tools were used by the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US to gather it.

Mr Hague led efforts – echoed by Prime Minister David Cameron – to reassure Britons that all operations involving GCHQ were carried out within the law.

But Mr Hague refused to answer questions about GCHQ’s reported links with the NSA, which has admitted gaining access to details of emails and website visits of nine of the world’s biggest internet companies.

Civil liberties groups likened the secrecy on the issue to the approach taken by China.

The Government sought to try to draw a line under claims that GCHQ used information obtained by the American intelligence agencies about UK nationals to circumvent British laws.

Mr Cameron insisted he was personally satisfied “they operate in a way that is proper and that is fitting” and Mr Hague said it was “baseless” to allege GCHQ used its links with the US to avoid UK legislation.

“Our agencies practise and uphold UK law at all times, even when dealing with information from outside the United Kingdom,” the Foreign Secretary said.

He disclosed that he received hundreds of requests from the security services to carry out covert operations every year and said they reached a peak in the build-up to last year’s London Olympics.

Explaining his reticence, Mr Hague vowed that he would say “nothing that gives any clue or comfort to terrorists, criminals or foreign intelligence services”.

He refused even to utter the word “prism” during a lengthy appearance at the despatch box, sidestepping questions over when he knew of the American surveillance programme.

Last night three civil liberties organisations – Index on Censorship, English PEN and the Open Rights Group – attacked Mr Hague’s claims that innocent citizens had nothing to fear as “the sort of justification of population-wide monitoring that we might expect from China, not the UK”.

They said in a joint statement: “Mass surveillance chills freedom of expression and undermines our fundamental rights to freedom of expression and privacy.”

Shami Chakrabarti, director of the campaign group Liberty, said: “The Foreign Secretary’s statement to Parliament is most revealing for what he refused to reveal. He evaded specific questions as brazenly as his Agencies have apparently avoided legal scrutiny and their embarrassment is now his.”

In the Commons, the former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, suggested the US’s National Security Agency could be avoiding British law by offering intelligence rather than responding to requests for it.

He asked Mr Hague: “Can we take a closer look at how other agencies – including the NSA and our friends and colleagues in the US – use material gathered from network and service providers and offer it rather than having it sought from them in a way that makes authorisation extremely difficult?”

The Conservative MP, Dominic Raab, also warned the NSA could be employed to “sidestep” British law.

A fellow Tory, Rory Stewart, said people would not support secret attacks such as drone strikes unless they were given more information about the intelligence behind them.

“We should do more to explain what we are doing. Unless we begin to explain more to the public, security operations will not be sustainable.”

Mr Hague delivered a staunch defence of Britain’s intelligence links with the United States, and also insisted the Government remained committed to bringing forward new powers to monitor communications over the internet. The so-called “snooper’s charter” plans were dropped from the Queen’s Speech last month after they were vetoed by Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister. s – and said it had practical benefits last year.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
Sport
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Arts and Entertainment
John Hurt will voice Prince Bolkonsky in Radio 4's War and Peace
radioRadio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Recruitment Genius: Development Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Development Scientist is required to join a ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game