Heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ expected to use committee hearing to condemn NSA leaks and justify scale of operations
The three heads of the British intelligence agencies are to make an unprecedented public televised appearance in front of the intelligence and security committee of MPs where they will seek to justify the scale of their surveillance activities.
Before the 90-minute hearing on Thursday afternoon, the former head of GCHQ Sir David Omand claimed the effectiveness of the committee itself was as much on show as the spy chiefs themselves.
The session, subject to a two-minute TV delay to avoid secrets inadvertently being broadcast, was agreed before news of mass surveillance by the UK and US was leaked by Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency contractor. It will feature the head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, his MI5 counterpart, Andrew Parker, and Sir Iain Lobban, head of the secretive GCHQ.
Apart from a test of the system of parliamentary accountability, the session is likely to be a forum for the heads of the agencies to condemn the leaks, and justify the scale of their intelligence operations in the digital age.
Lobban has mounted a strong defence of his staff, saying they “spend their lives protecting the security of Britain and the safety of British citizens”.
Omand accused the former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald and other reporters of “dodging around the issue of damage to public security”.
He asserted: “As a result of the revelations we know less about the people who are trying to harm us and we are therefore less safe.”
He urged journalists to to be honest about the damage. If there was such an admission, it would be possible to have a debate, he said.
“I have argued for a long time that the government should have been more open about the purpose of intelligence and the general ways in an internet age you have to go about accessing intelligence. That debate is perfectly reasonable.”
He rejected as nonsense claims in the Guardian that one reason why the intelligence agencies had argued against the use of intercept evidence in court trials was because it wished to keep secret the scale of its intelligence gathering.
Omand said he was proud of the British collaboration with American intelligence agencies, saying: “We have the brains, they have the money.” He added that it was an open matter of debate about how GCHQ was funded by the US.
He was sure, he said, that the committee would have had detailed briefings on the scale of GCHQ’s activity, but in private.
“The ISC has now been reconstituted. It is now a proper committee of parliament. They have got new powers. They are on show this afternoon every bit as much as the three heads of agencies. They have to demonstrate they can satisfy the need for oversight and satisfy parliament that they are doing a job that in other areas of government can be done by much more open means.”
Greenwald challenged the performance of the ISC, saying: “I think the system has failed to exercise meaningful accountability up to this point because there was a huge suspicionless system of mass spying that the British and American people had no idea had been built in their name. But I think that system can bring about real accountability if there is the political will.”
He challenged claims that the Guardian’s journalism had damaged national security, saying no evidence had yet been produced to justify these assertions.
In a speech to the defence industry, reported by the Sun, Lobban said his agents had “definitively saved the lives” of British troops abroad.
“I’m fiercely proud of GCHQ’s people, past and present,” he said.
In a sign of the nervous attitude, Richard Barrett, the former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, insisted the ISC session would not lead to fireworks. “This session will be one that is collaborative rather than confrontational. I don’t think that the parliament in the UK thinks that the intelligence agencies have been up to no good. I think that quite rightly they believe that they’ve been properly regulated and following the law as it applies to them.
“I don’t think we’ll get a whole load of questions that are aggressively put and seeking to trip up the heads of the agencies.”
The ISC has said the session will cover “the terrorist threat, regional instability and weapons proliferation, cyber security and espionage” but not ongoing operations or cases. The committee will question the chiefs on the work of the agencies, their current priorities and the threats to the UK.
Patrick Wintour

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