7 Nov 2013

Spy chiefs: al-Qaeda ‘lapping up’ Snowden leaks

Revelations about British and American surveillance operations have played into the hands of terrorists who are “rubbing their hands with glee”, the heads of Britain’s intelligence agencies tell MPs.

Terrorists are changing their tactics after reading reports of disclosures by the former US spy Edward Snowden, the head of the GCHQ listening post has told MPs.

Sir Iain Lobban said Britain’s enemies had learned how to avoid what they perceived to be vulnerable communication methods after Mr Snowden revealed details of the surveillance activities of British and American intelligence agencies.

My people are motivated by saving the lives of British forces. If they were asked to snoop I wouldn’t have the workforce. They would leave the building. Sir Iain Lobban

Sir Iain gave evidence in a historic televised session of the intelligence and security committee along with MI6 chief Sir John Sawers and Andrew Parker, head of MI5.

Sir John told MPs: “our adversaries were rubbing their hands with glee” after the Snowden leaks, and said British intelligence operations had been compromised by the revelations.

Read more: Tinker, Tailor… who are the spy chiefs on show for the first time?

Terrorists tipped off

Sir Iain said the success of intelligence operations required Britain’s enemies to be “unaware or uncertain” of surveillance methods.

He added: “What we have seen over the last five months is near daily discussion amongst some of our targets.

“We’ve seen terrorist groups in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and elsewhere in south Asia discussing the revelations in specific terms in terms of the communications packages that they use, the communications packages that they wish to move to.

“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.”

Sir John Sawers said: “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. It becomes more difficult to acquire the intelligence that this country needs”.

There are two key questions left unanswered by today’s Intelligence and Security Committee hearing, writes Technology Producer Geoff White.

First, GCHQ boss Sir Iain Lobban highlighted the need for “proportionality and necessity” in gathering intelligence. But it’s unclear when these tests are applied – is it OK to hoover up all communications in the first instance, because the proportionate filtering will happen later? And how proportionate is that filtering when it’s done? If GCHQ searches for keywords, for example, who’s deciding what keywords are a “necessity” to search?

Second, to quote Sir Iain, “if you are a terrorist, a serious criminal, a proliferator, a foreign intelligence target, or if your activities pose a genuine threat to the national or economic security of the United Kingdom, there is a possibility that your communications will be monitored…we will seek to read, we will seek to listen to you. If you’re not or not in contact with one of those people then you won’t be (listened to or read)”. Terrorism doesn’t seem to be defined in terrorism legislation (David Miranda, the partner of the Guardian journalist who reported the surveillance story, was arrested under anti-terror legislation), so that gives GCHQ a pretty broad remit.

And it also includes those “in contact with” any of those categories, which draws the net even wider. Does that mean that, if as a journalist I send a single email to a serious criminal, all my communications are open to surveillance
Bearing in mind today’s all-too-brief session, it seems unlikely we’ll have any more specifics soon.


No snooping

Sir Iain defended the work of GCHQ against accusations that the agency goes too far in listening in on the phone and email communications of innocent people.

He denied the listening post had worked with the CIA to try to get around British legal restrictions on intercepting communications.

He told the committee the internet was like “an enormous hayfield”, adding: “I’m looking for needles and fragments of needles. I do not look at the surrounding hay.

“We do not spend our time listening to the telephone calls or reading the e-mails of the majority, the vast majority that would not be proportionate, it would not be legal. We do not do it.

We’ve seen low hundreds of people from this country go to Syria for periods… and get involved in fighting – Andrew Parker

“We can only look at the content of communications where there are very specific legal thresholds and requirements which have been met. So that’s the reality. We don’t want to delve into innocent emails and phonecalls.

“I feel I have to say this – I don’t employ the type of people who would do. My people are motivated by saving the lives of British forces on the battlefield. They’re motivated by finding terrorists and serious criminals.

“If they were asked to snoop I wouldn’t have the workforce. They would leave the building.”

‘Hundreds’ of Brits have fought in Syria

Discussing so-called “terrorist tourism”, Mr Parker said: “Syria has become a very attractive place for people to go for that reason – those who support or sympathise with the al-Qaeda ideological message.

“We’ve seen low hundreds of people from this country go to Syria for periods and come back – some large numbers are still there – and get involved in fighting.

“It is a very important strand of the threat we face, the way in which there is interaction between people who live in this country who sympathise with or support the al-Qaeda ideology and then travel to areas where they meet these al-Qaeda groupings, either al-Qaeda itself in south Asia or some of these other groupings across other regions.

“The attractiveness to these groupings is that they meet British citizens who are willing to engage in terrorism and they task them to do so back at home, where they have higher impact, in this country. We’ve seen that played out in previous plots here, including 7/7.”

Sir John said: “We are having to deal with al-Qaeda emerging and forming and multiplying in a whole new range of countries, and of course that poses extra challenges, extra threats to us. There’s no doubt that, especially over the last 12 months, the threat has emerged.

“More British citizens have been killed overseas in 2013 than in the previous seven years combined. In Amenas, the Westgate mall in Nairobi, a hostage killed in Nigeria and the events in Woolwich. There’s no doubt at all that the threat is rising.”


Both Mr Parker and Sir John insisted that the security agencies would not tolerate the use of torture to get information about terror plots.

The MI5 director general said: “Would we pursue a situation that we knew would lead to mistreatment or torture of an individual to get terrorist threat intelligence? The answer is absolutely not.

“We do not participate in, incite, encourage or condone mistreatment or torture, and that is absolute.”

Sir John said: “If this person is held in a country where we’ve got a partnership relationship, we would seek with that partner to ensure that the right questions are put to that person, but in a lawful way.

“If there is a serious risk that our questions would prompt the maltreatment or torture of a detainee, we would consult ministers about that. If we knew that that was going to happen we wouldn’t even think about it in the first place, we wouldn’t even bother ministers with it.”


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