7 Nov 2013

Spies come in from the cold

GCHQ boss Sir Iain Lobban’s blood pressure seemed to rise considerably as he talked about the Edward Snowden leaks.

Until the Snowden section of this historic session, it sometimes felt like the committee and its witnesses were rehearsing in public a sanitised version of some conversations they’d had more freely in private probably many times before.

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The committee is trying to justify itself as the best possible auditor of the intelligence services given the need for secrecy in their work. The intelligence services have a vested interest in making sure that the demands for greater transparency in their work don’t get out of hand so is taking part in this limited (though in historic terms “giant”) leap in accountability discussing their work in public.

Sir Iain Lobban said the Snowden revelations made his work trying to detect terrorist plots “far far harder for years to come” and that he would in a private session tell the MPs of specific instances where terrorists have been heard discussing the Snowden revelations and how they will change their form of communications in response to those leaked documents.

The MI6 chief, Sir John Sawers, chipped in that the terrorists had reacted with “glee” to the Snowden revelations and were “lapping it up.” This was the section where intelligence bosses were getting some sharp feelings towards Alan Rusbridger and others off their chests. The MI6 chief referred to “some journalists” making judgements about publication who were “not well-placed” to know whether they were doing serious harm to UK intelligence efforts or not.

The Guardian live-blog on the session has rebutted: “In the context of some of the spy chiefs’ comments, it is worth noting that Guardian stories on the Snowden revelations have been published after consultation with the government’s DA Notice committee, with intelligence agencies themselves, or with officials in Whitehall.

“Following those discussions the Guardian has agreed not to publish certain things, and has made independent decisions to redact certain details, names, locations and operations.”

On some levels, this session was of course a bit opaque and bland. What lessons did the intelligence services learn from Iraq? We learnt an “enormous amount,” Sir John Sawers said. Did Britain spy on just about everyone, the bosses were asked, in an allusion to the allegations  that Angela Merkel’s phone had been tapped by the US with possible UK help? Sir John Sawers said anyone targeted for surveillance was done so with the authorisation of ministers.

‘Lucrative needles’ in cyber-hay

The intelligence bosses were pretty clear that one of their biggest concerns at the moment is tracking individuals who go to Syria to fight against the regime there and then come back to the UK. Most don’t get involved in then targeting UK citizens but “some may.” The  numbers shuttling to Syria were “in the low hundreds.” The number of terrorist plots frustrated since the 7/7 attack in 2005 was 34.

“One or two of these plots were mass casualty,” the MI5 boss said. Sir Iain Lobban insisted that GCHQ was not snooping on innocent citizens but harvesting a great field of cyber-hay to sift it for “lucrative needles.”

Sir John Sawers as an ex-ambassador was no stranger to a public forum and it showed. The other two bosses, Andrew Parker from MI5 (a passing resemblance to Alex Guinness’s Smiley?) and Sir Iain Lobban from GCHQ (the man who got most fired up and could most readily be imagined jumping across rooves is actually the desk-bound one) are “lifers” in their respective services. They would never have expected public scrutiny when they first joined up. But they didn’t appear to misspeak or hesitate. The session – unusually kept to time unlike most committee over-runs – was brisk to the point of being breakneck. It rattled through complex subjects to show a breadth of areas covered … albeit briefly and on a highly self-censored basis.

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