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UK spy chiefs: Terrorists around the globe 'rubbing hands in glee' following Edward Snowden leaks

Terrorists around the world have been moving to less vulnerable communication methods in the wake of disclosures by the former US intelligence operative Edward Snowden, the head of listening post GCHQ has warned.

GCHQ director Sir Iain Lobban said activists in the Middle East and "closer to home" had been monitored discussing ways of switching away from communications they "now perceived as vulnerable".

Sir Iain, joined by MI6 chief Sir John Sawers and MI5 director general Andrew Parker, also denied delving into "innocent e-mails and phonecalls" during the first public hearing of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC).

Sir John warned that "our adversaries were rubbing their hands with glee" in the wake of recent leaks by Mr Snowden revealing some of the surveillance activities of GCHQ and its American counterpart, the National Security Agency (NSA).

Quizzing Sir Iain, ISC chair Sir Malcolm Rifkind said many believe the "real cyber threat" comes from GCHQ seeking to collect data communications.

Sir Iain replied: "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.

"It would be very nice if terrorists or serious criminals used a particular method of communication and everybody else used something else. That is not the case.

"It would be very nice if we knew who the terrorists or serious criminals were but the internet is a great way to anonymise and avoid identification. So we have to do detective work."

Sir Iain said the internet was an "enormous hayfield" and GCHQ was trying to access "those parts of the field that we can get access to and which might be lucrative in terms of containing the needles or the fragments of the needles we might be interested in, that might help our mission".

He went on: "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."

Sir Iain said: "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'd leave the building," he added.

Sir Iain, who also suggested the leaks could help paedophiles avoid detection, said the success of intelligence operations required the country's enemies to be "unaware or uncertain" of methods.

When those methods were made public the effect could be a "sudden darkening".

"More often it is gradual, but it is inexorable. What we have seen over the last five months is near daily discussion amongst some of our targets," he said.

"We've seen terrorist groups in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and elsewhere in south Asia discussing he 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.

"I am not going to compound the damage by being specific in public. I am very happy to be very specific in private."

Asked whether the discussions related directly to the recent revelations about surveillance, Sir Iain said: "It is a direct consequence. I can say that explicitly."

Sir John Sawers said he was not sure the journalists handling the Snowden material were "particularly well placed" to make judgments about the effects of their reports.

He said: "What I can tell you is that 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 Qaida is lapping it up."

He added that, as a result, "it becomes more difficult to acquire the intelligence that this country needs".

Earlier in the session, MI5 head Mr Parker rejected suggestions that the work of the security and intelligence services was compromising freedom and democracy in the United Kingdom.

Mr Parker said the £2 billion annual budget of the agencies was "proportionate" to the threats facing Britain and its way of life.

He said: "The suggestion that somehow what we do is somehow compromising freedom and democracy, of course we believe the opposite to be the case.

"The work we do is addressing directly threats to this country, to our way of life, to this country and to people who live in it.

"The work we do is proportionate judged against the necessity of protecting against these threats."

The agencies' budgets totalled around 6% of the UK's defence budget, said Mr Parker, adding: "We would contend that is a proportionate investment against the threats the country faces."

Sir John told the committee: "It's not like it was in the Cold War. There aren't states out there trying to destroy our Government and our way of life. But there are a very wide range of diverse threats that we face.

"The biggest is terrorism - the threat from al Qaida and its many, many branches. There are also states out there that are trying to do us harm, through cyber-attacks, by acquiring nuclear weapons or involved in generating instability in parts of the world important to us."

He added: "It's a very volatile and rapidly changing world we are living in and we have to have the skills, the people and the capabilities to be able to support and defend this country's security interests wherever those threats arise."

Sir John was questioned by MP Hazel Blears about past allegations that intelligence agencies have been complicit in torture or have mistreated individuals.

Sir John said: "I don't accept the allegations that have been made against us. What I would say with the benefit of hindsight we were not configured in 2001 for the scale of the terrorist threat this country faced after 9/11.

"Our people weren't trained for it, we didn't have the experience for it, we didn't have the resources for it. It took us some time to adapt to the scale of the threat we faced."

He added: "We don't have the powers to do that. We need to work in partnership to do things lawfully overseas."

After incidents including assaults on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria and a Kenyan shopping mall in 2013, Sir John said there was "no doubt at all that the threat is rising" of terrorist attacks against British citizens and interests around the world.

And Mr Parker said that so-called "terrorist tourism" - which sees British nationals travel abroad for terror training before return to the UK to plot attacks - is "a very important strand" of the threat faced by Britain.

Since the July 7 attacks in London in 2005, there have been 34 plots disrupted in the UK, some of which were "aimed at mass casualties" and the majority of which were thwarted by the actions of the intelligence and security agencies, he said.

The civil war in Syria had been a magnet for hundreds of British nationals looking for the opportunity for "jihadi" activity, many of whom have come into contact with al Qaida-supporting groups before returning to the UK, he said.

Asked how concerned he was about terrorist tourism, Mr Parker told the committee: "It has grown recently and is growing at the moment, because of Syria.

"Syria has become a very attractive place for people to go for that reason - those who support or sympathise with the al Qaida 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.

"This is partly because of the proximity of Syria and the ease of travel there, but also because it is attractive as what they would see as a jihadi cause."

Mr Parker said: "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 Qaida ideology and then travel to areas where they meet these al Qaida groupings, either al Qaida 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."

Mr Parker said that, in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the US in 2001, the bulk of plots directed at British interests emanated from the "almost monolithic phenomenon" of al Qaida in south Asian states, though he paid tribute to UK troops for ensuring that there had been no plots stemming from Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban.

But he said that increasingly since the July 7 attacks, the direct threat from al Qaida had been supplemented by threats from areas like Africa and Yemen.

"The threats since that time has started to spread out, but I want to make clear that this diversification of threat is not a shift or a displacement from one area to another. It's the growth of the al Qaida phenomenon... in north and west Africa, in east Africa, in Yemen and most recently in Syria, where the al Qaida ideology has started to take root with pre-existing groups there that were mostly national or regional Islamist extremist groupings.

"We've seen threats from all of those areas but also still from south Asia."

Sir John said: "We are having to deal with al Qaida 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 pursue any leads against potential terrorist plots which would involve the torture or mistreatment of suspects.

Sir John said: "There are very strong ethical standards in all our services.

"When you are working in a secret organisation, having a very strong ethical and disciplined approach is really, really important. That's one of the bases on which we recruit people."

Asked by Ms Blears if he could say the agencies were "beyond reproach" on this issue, he said: "I'm very confident to be able to answer your question 'Yes'."

Challenged over how the agencies would respond if they believed a suspect being held abroad had information which could prevent an attack in Britain, Sir John said: "We would do everything we can within the law to disrupt any such threat .

"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."

Mr Parker added: "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 Iain insisted the revelations had made GCHQ's job "far, far harder".

"There is a complex and fragile mosaic of strategic capability which allow us to discover, to process, to investigate and then to take action," he said.

"That includes terrorist cells, it reveals people shipping secrets or expertise or materials to do with chemical, biological, nuclear around the world.

"It allows us to reveal the identities of those involved in online sexual exploitation of children.

"Those people are very active users of encryption and of anonymisation tools. That mosaic is in a far, far weaker place than it was five months ago."

Asked if he was concerned about the long-term consequences of changes in the behaviour of global communications companies in the wake of the Snowden affair, Sir Iain said: "I'm concerned in terms of co-operation that we might receive.

"I am concerned about the access that we can lawfully require of communications companies which is very difficult if they are based overseas."

 

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