On 7 November 2013, the heads of the three UK internal and foreign intelligence agencies, GCHQ, MI5 and MI6, were publicly heard by UK’s secretive intelligence and security committee (ISC) concerning Snowden’s leaks regarding the mass surveillance by US and UK intelligence.
Although this was a historical even being the first instance when heads of intelligence services were questioned in a public 90-minute broadcasted meeting, considered a first step to a transparency era, it seems that actually, the three agencies had been briefed beforehand on the questions that were to be asked by the nine members of ICS, all MPs and Lords.
Moreover, the questions were far from being tough giving the three intelligence heads the possibility to bring arguments for their position. Also, there were serious questions, like that related to spying on Angela Merkel’s communications, that have not been touched.
“But the chairman Malcolm Rifkind, who used to be the Foreign Secretary and in charge of GCHQ and MI6 a few years ago, has already exonerated GCHQ in the wake of the Snowden disclosures about endemic surveillance and things like that. So he’s already been on the record, arguing in favor of what the intelligence agencies do. I had no expectation there would be any difficult questions whatsoever,” stated former MI5 agent Annie Machon.
MI5’s head Andrew Parker even condemned Snowden’s revelations as damaging qualifying the leaks as “the gift terrorists need to evade us and strike at will”. “Unfashionable as it might seem, that is why we must keep secrets secret, and why not doing so causes such harm,” he said as if terrorist group had no idea they could be under surveillance before Snowden’s revelations.
“What I can tell you is that the leaks from Snowden have been very damaging. They have put our operations at risk. It is clear that our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee. Al-Qaeda is lapping it up,” stated Sir John Sawers, head of MI6. He did not mention however the fact that several European politicians have also been under surveillance. Or did they think they were all terrorists?
When asked about why the security services, despite the amount of information they gathered, had not been able to predict such events as 9/11 or the Arab Spring, Sir John Sawers said that was not their job: “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.”
GCHQ’s head, Iain Lobban, stated he needed a “ring of secrecy” to do his work and that his operations did not exceed the limits of the British law. He also described the internet as an “enormous hay field” where terrorists are plotting attacks. “We are very, very well aware that within that haystack there is going to be plenty of hay which is innocent communication, innocent people, not just British,” he said. He also suggested that 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.
Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who worked with Snowden on stories for the Guardian said the UK Parliament had not succeeded in holding UK intelligence agencies accountable. “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.
Meanwhile, a new study published on 6 November 2013 by seven academics says British, Dutch, French, German and Swedish spying operations violate the EU Treaty, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.
“It’s no longer credible to say the EU has no legal competence and should do nothing on this,” one of the authors, Sergio Carrera told the EU parliament, urging MEPs to block an EU-US free trade deal unless the US and EU countries fully disclose their surveillance activities.
He also suggested that MEPs should push EU countries to draft a “professional code for the transnational management of data,” and set up a permanent, EU-level intelligence oversight body.
UK spy chiefs defend mass-snooping on Europeans (8.11.2013)
Grilling of spy chiefs ‘a total pantomime’ (17.11.2013)
UK intelligence work defends freedom, say spy chiefs (7.11.2013)
As it happened: Spy chiefs quizzed (7.11.2013)
UK intelligence chiefs getting such a soft touch is ‘shocking’ (8.11.2013)
Mass Surveillance of Personal Data by EU Member States and its Compatibility with EU Law (6.11.2013)