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PM defends agencies amid spying row

David Cameron has mounted an impassioned defence of the intelligence agencies amid continuing diplomatic tensions over spying by the United States on its European allies.

The Prime Minister, attending the EU summit in Brussels, backed calls by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande for talks with Washington to resolve the dispute over the activities of America's National Security Agency (NSA).

But he also issued a pointed reminder that intelligence gathered by Britain's GCHQ spy agency - which has also been caught up in the allegations - had helped protect citizens across Europe from terrorist attack.

He bitterly denounced the leaks by former US intelligence operative Edward Snowden - and "what some newspapers are assisting him in doing" - warning that they were making it more difficult to keep people safe.

In the latest disclosures, The Guardian revealed details of a NSA memorandum from 2006 showing that the agency had monitored the telephone calls of at least 35 world leaders, using numbers obtained by officials in other US government departments.

Mrs Merkel has already confronted President Barack Obama over claims the NSA tapped her mobile phone, and the issue overshadowed the summit in Brussels.

At his end of summit press conference, Mr Cameron refused to be drawn on whether GCHQ was spying on EU allies through its Tempora programme of internet surveillance, saying only that the agency operated within a proper legal framework.

He did however emphasise that Britain shared its intelligence extensively with EU partners, and he echoed recent comments by MI5 director-general Andrew Parker condemning the way its efforts were being jeopardised by leaks.

"The point is, what Snowden is doing and, to an extent, what the newspapers are doing in helping him do what he is doing, is frankly signalling to people who mean to do us harm how to evade and avoid intelligence and surveillance and other techniques," he said.

"That is not going to make our world safer, it's going to make our world more dangerous. The first priority of a prime minister is to help try and keep your country safe.

"That means not having some lah-di-dah, airy-fairy view about what this all means, it's understanding intelligence and security services do an important job.

"Yes they need to be governed under law, yes they must be scrutinised by Parliament, but we need those people. They are brave people who help to keep us safe and I've lost count of the plots that I have seen and the problems that I have seen being avoided by the work they do.

"That is really important, not just for Britain but the information that we gather that we then share with other countries in Europe has helped those countries in Europe too.

"So I make no apology for that, that we have intelligence services, we will maintain intelligence services and I will back the work that they do. I will criticise, though, those that make public some of the techniques that they use because that is helping our enemies. Simple."

Mr Cameron indicated that - unlike Mrs Merkel - he had not been targeted by the NSA.

"I think I can point you towards a statement made by the White House about this issue which might give you some reassurance," he said.

Britain and the US - along with Canada, Australia and New Zealand - are members of the so-called "Five Eyes" group, who share signals intelligence and are supposed not to spy on each other.

Earlier, Mrs Merkel and Mr Hollande called for talks with the US administration to rebuild trust to take place before the end of the year.

The French president said: "What is at stake is preserving our relations with the United States. They should not be changed because of what has happened. But trust has to be restored and reinforced."

Mrs Merkel spoke of her upset at the alleged phone monitoring, saying: "It's become clear that for the future, something must change - and significantly.

"We will put all efforts into forging a joint understanding by the end of the year for the co-operation of the (intelligence) agencies between Germany and the US and France and the US, to create a framework for the co-operation."

Mr Cameron welcomed their planning, stressing the importance of maintaining good transatlantic relations at a time when the US and EU are engaged in talks on a major trade agreement.

"I was very struck by my colleagues how they don't want some breach between the EU and the US, they want a good partnership, good trust and good relations," he said.

"I think what Angela and Francois want to do is entirely sensible and other European countries are free to join in with that."


From Belfast Telegraph