LONDON – Britain’s intelligence chiefs used their first ever
joint public appearance to complain that documents by former US
intelligence operative Edward Snowden had put secret operations
at risk and were being “lapped up” by al Qaeda.
In an unprecedented evidence session before parliament
that local media likened to a scene from a James Bond film, the
heads of Britain’s three main intelligence agencies said Snowden’s
disclosures about the mass surveillance they undertake had
prompted them to consider being more open about what
But they said parts of their work had to remain secret for
national security reasons and that the data leaks, which detailed
Britain’s close cooperation with the U.S. National Security Agency
(NSA), had caused huge damage.
“The leaks from Snowden have been very damaging, they’ve
put our operations at risk,” John Sawers, the head of MI6,
Britain’s foreign intelligence service, told parliament.
“It’s clear that our adversaries are rubbing their hands with
glee, al Qaeda is lapping it up.”
The robust nature of his comments underlined how angry
intelligence chiefs are about Snowden and what they believe is
the irresponsible way some newspapers published his information
despite warnings not to do so.
The leaks have put intelligence chiefs under pressure to be
more open about what they do and have prompted a debate
about the balance between security and privacy which has led to
calls for greater oversight of the agencies’ work.
Iain Lobban, the director of GCHQ, Britain’s electronic
eavesdropping agency, told lawmakers that intelligence chiefs
were “actively considering” whether more information should
now be shared with the public as a result.
Visibly emotional, he argued however that “certain methods”
should remain secret and cited what he said were specific
examples where the Snowden data leaks had harmed Britain’s
“We’ve seen terrorist groups in the Middle East, in
Afghanistan and elsewhere in south Asia discussing the revelations
in specific terms,” he said.
“We have actually seen chat around specific terrorist groups
who, even close to home, discuss how to avoid what they now
perceive to be vulnerable communications methods, or how
to select communications which they now perceive not to
The fact that the three intelligence chiefs even appeared in
public – the head of MI5, Britain’s domestic security service, was
also present – was a first in Britain.
In the past, such hearings have been behind closed doors and
it was not until 1992 that the name of the head of MI6, formally
known as the Secret Intelligence Service, was publicly known.
Sawers, the current head of MI6, wore a green tie, a nod to a
quirky tradition which means that the person doing his job writes
in green ink and is known internally as “C”.
The hearing, which lasted about 90 minutes, was televised,
albeit with a short delay for security reasons.
Civil liberties groups, parts of the media and lawmakers from
all parties have argued that Snowden’s disclosures about the
scale of GCHQ’s monitoring activities show it has become too
powerful and needs to be reined in.
Prime Minister David Cameron has rejected calls for greater
oversight, arguing that it is already subject to proper scrutiny and
that its work needs to be kept secret to protect national security.
Angered by Snowden’s disclosures, Cameron has accused
the American and British newspapers that have published his
information of assisting Britain’s enemies by helping them to avoid
surveillance by its intelligence agencies.
He has also threatened to stop future publications if necessary.