Spy chiefs testify in public

Live blog as the heads of Britain’s three spy agencies are giving evidence to MPs in public for the first time, at the Intelligence and Security Committee. C is wearing a green tie so we know which one he is. Andrew Parker is wearing blue as well.

Key messages: the chiefs maintain their work is necessary, legal, proportionate, and ethical. The Butler Report is described as a “bible” for the intelligence agencies.

Malcolm Rifkind opens by asking C and Andrew Parker where what they do is still necessary. Both, perhaps unsurprisingly, say yes.

Hazel Blears asks about the global nature of contemporary threats. C says the three agencies have to work together more closely, and share systems.

Lord Lothian asks why the intelligence committee failed to predict the end of the Cold War, 9/11, and the Arab Spring. C says there was no secret in a safe in Cairo that predicted the Arab Spring. Everyone saw the tensions, but you can’t predict the exact trigger.

George Howarth asks about technological change, and whether it’s helped the agencies or the enemy. Andrew Lobban points out that the global technology industry is worth £3trn per year so it is a challenge just to track. Issues about scale, speed, and skills. Need to be global, agile, and flexible, and so to work with partners. Technology helps terrorists with communication, platform, planning. Have been able to use some aspects against terrorists, best kept secret.

Everyone is speaking very quickly. Malcolm Rifkind is also speaking very loudly. Nice of him.

Julian Lewis asks what can be done to prevent future breaches along the lines of Edward Snowden. Andrew Parker says there are tight restrictions on IT access, but that a full range of security measures have to be used. Extremely stringent access, vetting, and management measures should help.

Rifkind asks if the agencies have raised the issue of who has access to documents with US partners. All three say yes.

Hazel Blears asks about working with governments with dodgy human rights records. C says it’s easy to work with western democracies, but that isn’t where the threats are coming from. Often we need to co-operate with the local agencies in other states, and often those states are not western states. C also says MI6 takes the law very seriously – e.g. There is no way of working with Syria at the moment – and seeks assurances that british information will be used legally and that any detentions following from British information will be conducted according to british standards. Issues can be and are escalated to ministers if necessary.

Blears asks about allegations of complicity in torture. C says he disputes specific allegations but recognises that MI6 took some time to scale up its activities after 9/11. After over a decade of learning there are very clear (public) guidelines on what is and what is not permissible.

Menzies Campbell asks about how decisions on the ground are audited. C says it’s a dynamic process. People in the field are in touch with head office and can get guidance if they need it, and HQ can wake the foreign secretary up if they need to.

Blears asks C if he can guarantee that MI6 is not complicit in torture. He doesn’t reply directly, emphasising standards, procedures, and learning over the last 12 years. Then he says “yes”.

C seems to be taking the lead. He’s probably more experienced at speaking publicly than Andrew Parker, who is new, or Ian Lobban! who rarely speaks in public.

Mark Field asks about whether the British government would take actions that led to the torture of an individual in order to prevent terrorism. Andrew Parker says no. C says MI6 was glad to see changes in the law to allow evidence in cases relating to alleged torture to be held in secret so the agency can now defend itself against what he sees as unfair allegations.

Andrew Parker takes the opportunity to pay tribute to British troops, noting that Britain has not been subject to terrorist threats during the time British troops have been in Afghanistan. He does note the spread of Al-Qaeda’s ideology into new areas. C says the new range of countries involved has raised issues, and that the overall threat is rising – more British citizens killed by terrorism in 2013 than in previous 7 years.

Menzies Campbell asks about the risk of “terrorist tourism”. Andrew Parker says this is a key part of the threat faced, and is growing at the moment because of Syria. Campbell asks what factors go in to assessing the nature of a threat. Parker says JTAC is based in MI5 but works with all three agencies to assess threat levels around the world. Campbell asks if the heads question JTAC or just take it’s conclusions as given. Parker says they co-operate in agreeing how to respond with specific issues.

George Howarth asks if the deaths of British citizens in terrorist attacks constitute a failure of intelligence. How many plots have been disrupted and how much of the services’ work relies on luck. Andrew Parker defends his agency with reference to the ISC’s own report on the London bombings. He says 34 plots have been disrupted since then. One or two each year were major mass casualty attacks. The majority were disrupted by the agencies. One or two just failed. The majority were home grown. Several thousand individuals in the UK support or engage with violent extremism. Parker isn’t sure about the term “home grown” as plotters usually have some sort of link to extremists in South-East Asia, the Middle East, or East Africa.

Blears asks how important the Prevent programme is, and whether is is sufficiently emphasised. Parker says the agencies focus on people who have already been radicalised.

Parker says it remains the case that the threat has not worsened, but it has changed. The level of counter-terrorism activity have been constant in recent years. No serious threats arose during the Olympics for example. 330 prosecutions have been brought since 9/11. The threat in Northern Ireland persists but is declining.

Parker has been careful to link his answers to his predecessor’s comments and statements by the Home Secretary.

Big questions – the cyber threat and the agencies’ engagement with the internet. Lord Butler asks how the agencies assess the overall cyber threat. Lobban refers to states, corporate spies, criminals, hacktivists, and terrorists as the key threats. Capable non-state actors have made the picture look different. Less well-armed states have used cyber methods to compensate for their lack of conventional strength. Industrial espionage has been impacted most severely. GCHQ works closely with industry, BIS, and academia to build skills and resilience.

Rifkind asks whether mass data collection is the real threat. Lobban says GCHQ does not listen in on the majority – it would be illegal and impractical. They do need to investigate the sort of communication media that most people use. They do target what they look for, and they are aware that the data involved is private. They have to meet very specific legal thresholds before they are allowed to listen to specific communications. Lobban also thinks his workforce would refuse to snoop on innocent people.

Rifkind asks why this point wasn’t made sooner. Lobban says the government’s first duty is protection, and sometimes that needs to be secret, though secret need not mean without oversight. Rifkind pushes him on the point about the public. Lobban holds the line on keeping methods secret while referring to safeguards within the “ring of secrecy” including the ISC itself.

Blears asks for a guarantee that GCHQ does not act outside of British law. Lobban gives it. Blears says the public supports the existence of the powers, but would like more transparency about how they are used. Lobban says your communications will only be listened to if you pose a threat to the UK. Parker says the agencies have become more open, but it’s for parliament to decide ultimately. Rifkind asks if the agencies push secrecy too far. Parker says no, the point is to avoid letting the enemy know what the agencies are up to. Operational advantage can sometimes be quite fragile. Keeping the country safe is hard enough without making methods public. C says it would be bizarre not to make the most use of technology given the enemy does it.

Blears asks if the agencies are between a rock and a hard place. Blamed for failures and criticised for knowing too much. Parker says MI5 exists to protect Britain as a free society. British people, including MI5 officers, don’t want to live in a surveillance society. Governments have offered powers in the past that the agencies have turned down.

Rifkind asks for examples of the damage done by the Snowden leak. Parker says he can give specifics in private. In public he can say MI5 needs GCHQ intercepts to disrupt terrorist plots, and losing the advantage of secrecy makes that harder. Lobban says SigInt relies on targets not knowing how capable Western agencies are. GCHQ have intercepted discussions between terrorists about how to avoid the methods revealed by Snowden. He sounds quite angry about it, predicting damage for years to come. Describes intelligence as a “fragile mosaic” that can be seriously damaged at any time. Rifkind asks if withholding specifics from leaks helps. C says the journalists involved are not well placed to make such judgements. Snowden’s leaks have damaged current operations and adversaries are “rubbing their hands with glee”.

George Howarth says people don’t understand why the agencies can’t just have access to those who pose a threat. Lobban says everything is intercepted, but nothing is looked at without a specific rationale.

Campbell asks if the existing legal framework is up to dealing with the revolution in communications technology, and whether the agencies would participate in public debate over the implications. Lobban says there are legal safeguards on privacy which are followed rigorously, and that the laws are technology neutral. Necessity and proportionality as key watchwords. “Within our DNA”. If parliament changes the rules, “so be it”. Lobban also highlights the role of the intelligence commissioners, appointed by the Prime Minister. Rifkind notes the latter don’t operate publicly. C says the agencies are public servants. Parliament sets the law, and the agencies work within it. Parker says article 8 of the human rights act underpins the acts that define the agencies, which is the element dealing with privacy.

Lord Butler asks how the legislation can still be fit for purpose given the last piece was passed in 2000. Parker says work is lawful, is overseen in multiple ways – parliamentary, executive, and judicial. Parker is on his fourth formal appearance at the ISC, has received three visits from the commissioners, and sees the Home Secretary 2-3 times per week, all in his first six months in the job.

Butler asks about offensive cyber capabilities. Lobban says GCHQ would contribute expertise but, like SIS, is primarily responsible for intelligence gathering – the military is responsible for offensive capabilities.

C says the strategy is to break links between Al Qaeda overseas and jihadists or possible sympathisers in the UK. Syria is a particular concern because of the lack of a local partner. Andrew Parker says a number of people in “the low hundreds” have fought in Syria and returned to the UK. Most will not be a threat, but some will. Blears asks if having fought in Syria grants kudos to potential radicalisers. Parker says this is one area in which the prevent and pursue strands of contest overlap.

Butler asks about the intelligence community’s contribution to the apparent thaw over Iran’s nuclear programme. C says the picture is incomplete but intelligence has helped both with understanding the programme’s development and with making sanctions stick. MI6 has a lot of expertise on Iran which it makes available to government. Rifkind asks how much confidence there can be in commitments given by Iran. C says the IAEA is a useful monitoring body and Britain can rely on it, at least to monitor publicly declared programmes. It won’t be easy. C describes the Butler report as a “bible” for MI6, in terms of procedures, assessment, and personnel management.

Malcolm Rifkind asks about the threat from North Korea, Julian Lewis about the threat from espionage. C says Britain is not the lead on North Korea but does contribute what it can. Andrew Parker says 10% of MI5’s work is counter-espionage, which is a lively business that goes beyond Russia, primarily in military and technology areas. Rifkind asks about relations with Russia after the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. C says there has been a gap between the states for some time, which has thawed slightly due to discussions around the Sochi Olympics.

Lewis asks if it’s true that we spy on everyone and everyone spies on us. C says terrorism, cyber threats, and nuclear proliferation are the key targets. Britain doesn’t spy on everyone. Targets are highest priority challenges faced by UK, as authorised by ministers. So the short answer is “no”.

C ends the session by praising the work of the officers of the three services, who “don’t work for high salaries, because they don’t get high salaries”.

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