GCHQ fears challenges over spying
A "damaging public debate" over GCHQ's spying activities could lead to legal challenges against its mass-surveillance programmes, the intelligence agency fears.
Classified documents leaked by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden outline GCHQ's ongoing battle against having evidence obtained through interception being allowed as evidence in court.
According to the Guardian, the leaked memos revealed the agency was keen to reduce the possibility of challenges against its wide-scale interception programmes.
It feared challenges under the Human Rights Act to the right to privacy if its methods became admissible in court.
The revelation comes after Prime Minister David Cameron mounted a staunch defence of the intelligence agencies following diplomatic rifts over spying by the United States on its European allies.
Mr Cameron issued a stern reminder at an EU summit in Brussels yesterday that GCHQ's intelligence had helped protect citizens across Europe from terrorist attacks.
The Prime Minister also denounced the leaks by former US intelligence operative Snowden - and "what some newspapers are assisting him in doing" - warning that they were making it more difficult to keep people safe.
Four years ago the intelligence agencies GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 defeated an attempt to make intelligence gathered from intercepts admissible in court, the Guardian said.
A note prepared for the GCHQ board before the decision was made public revealed that it was keen to prevent the proposals because of fears that even passing references to its surveillance powers could start a "damaging" public debate.
On the decision to publish the report about interception as evidence without classification, it said: "Our main concern is that references to agency practices (interception and deletion) could lead to damaging public debate which might lead to legal challenges against the current regime."
An update from May 2012 outlined the "risks" of making intercepts admissible, including "the damage to partner relationships if sensitive information were accidentally released in open court".
It also highlighted that the "scale of interception and retention required would be fairly likely to be challenged on Article 8 (Right to Privacy) grounds."
The documents also revealed that GCHQ has gone to great lengths to keep secret its relations with telecoms companies, which have gone "well beyond" their legal obligations in assisting intelligence agencies' interception of communications, in the UK and abroad.
The latest revelations come to light after it emerged that America's National Security Agency (NSA) had monitored the telephone calls of at least 35 world leaders, using numbers obtained by officials in other US government departments.
Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande have both called for talks with the US administration before the end of the year to resolve the dispute and rebuild trust.
Mrs Merkel has already confronted President Barack Obama over claims the NSA tapped her mobile phone. Mr Cameron yesterday indicated that he had not been targeted by the NSA.
In a statement the White House said that the Prime Minister's communications " have not, are not and will not be monitored by the US", the BBC said.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty and Anthony Romero executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a joint statement stating: "The Guardian's publication of information from Edward Snowden has uncovered a breach of trust by the US and UK Governments on the grandest scale. The newspaper's principled and selective revelations demonstrate our rulers' contempt for personal rights, freedoms and the rule of law.
"Across the globe, these disclosures continue to raise fundamental questions about the lack of effective legal protection against the interception of all our communications.
"Yet in Britain, that conversation is in danger of being lost beneath self-serving spin and scaremongering, with journalists who dare to question the secret state accused of aiding the enemy.
"A balance must of course be struck between security and transparency, but that cannot be achieved whilst the intelligence services and their political masters seek to avoid any scrutiny of, or debate about, their actions.
"The Guardian's decision to expose the extent to which our privacy is being violated should be applauded and not condemned."
Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, said: "The fact GCHQ has doubts about the legality of its surveillance reinforces the public interest in the disclosures about what has taken place in America and closer to home.
"Parliament never legislated to allow the scale of interception that has been exposed, with laws written long before widespread broadband internet access or Facebook existed. There is a clear and overwhelming need for a fundamental review of our legal framework and oversight mechanisms.
"If companies are handing over customer data or access to their equipment when there is no legal authority then those businesses may well have broken the law. This should be urgently investigated by the Information Commissioner."