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UK spy chiefs claim Snowden leaks damaged national security, but won’t tell public how

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Terrorists are “rubbing their hands in glee” in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, the head of the British Security Service has claimed. Why is that? Sadly, it’s a secret.

Thursday saw the first ever public evidence-gathering session involving the heads of the UK’s big three spy agencies, before Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. The chiefs are: Sir Iain Lobban (director of signals intelligence agency GCHQ); Andrew Parker (director general of the Security Service, commonly known as MI5); and Sir John Sawers (chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6).

Although it was planned before they emerged, the session took place under the cloud of Snowden’s leaks, which revealed some of the techniques employed by GCHQ and its American counterpart, the NSA. These revelations exposed mass surveillance activities around the world, led by – but not exclusive to – Anglophone countries.

It was hardly what you might call a grilling, but it did elicit some quotable responses, mostly from GCHQ’s Lobban (pictured above). Here’s a selection:

  • “The global information technology domain is a $3-trillion-a-year industry so we need to keep up with that.” (Lobban)
  • “There are very good safeguards in place… 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 UK, there is a possibility your communications will be monitored. If you are not, and you are not in contact with one of these people, you [won’t be monitored].” (Lobban)
  • “We do not spend our time listening to the telephone calls or reading the emails of the majority, or the vast majority … That would not be legal… We don’t want to delve into innocent phone calls and emails. I don’t employ the type of people who would want to do that.” (Lobban)
  • “We have seen… near daily examples among some of our targets… in the Middle East, Afghanistan, elsewhere in South Asia, discussing the revelations in specific terms. We have actually seen chat around specific terrorist groups… discussing how to avoid what they now perceive to be vulnerable communications methods.” (Lobban)
  • “The leaks from Snowden have been very damaging. They’ve put our operations at risk. It is clear our adversaries are rubbing their hands in glee. Al Qaeda is lapping it up.” (Sawers)

Unless I missed it, none of the spooks denied collecting everyone’s metadata in the UK and elsewhere, but then again no-one asked such a specific question. Also, no-one noted that, while the terrorists are discussing ways to avoid surveillance, so is everyone else.

Committee chair Malcolm Rifkind did press Sawers on whether he had any “hard evidence” for how the leaks damaged national security, but Sawers said he would only divulge such information in private.

Lobban also raised the now well-worn analogy of collecting a haystack to find a needle, declaring: “I do not look at the surrounding hay.” The specter of terrorists going dark was also raised, as was that of child pornography, which has apparently also been fought through gathering lots of hay. The pedophilia angle was also employed earlier on Thursday by another government official.

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