British Intelligence watchdog flies to Washington to demand answers on snooping scandal
MPs from Britain’s intelligence watchdog will to fly to Washington next week to seek guarantees that US spies are not snooping on Britons’ emails.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, told The Daily Telegraph: 'We will get a report and decide if any further action is needed' Photo: Claire Lim
By Christopher Hope, and Tom Whitehead
The Government's Intelligence and Security Committee is going on a week-long tour, when it will meet senior figures from the America’s intelligence agencies.
The news came after leaked US documents appeared to show that Britain’s listening post GCHQ has been secretly gathering intelligence from some of the world’s biggest internet firms through America’s National Security Agency.
The Guardian newspaper claimed that it had obtained documents that show that GCHQ, based in Cheltenham, has had access to the system since at least June 2010, and generated 197 intelligence reports from it last year.
It raises the prospect that the intelligence agency is able to circumvent UK restrictions on accessing people’s communications by obtaining the same information via the US authorities.
One senior MP said the news suggested the British Government was trying to introduce the Data Communications Bill – dubbed the “snoopers charter” and which was which was vetoed from last month’s Queen Speech after Liberal Democrat objections – “by the back door”.
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Members of the ISC, which monitors the work of Britain’s security agencies such as MI5, MI6 and GCHQ on behalf of the Cabinet Office, will meet with senior figures from both the NSA and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Sources said the visit – which has been long-planned – would provide a well timed opportunity to raise these issues.
Last night officials in GCHQ were drawing up a report on the Britain’s relationship, if anything, with the Prism programme, to allow the MPs to decide whether to take action.
The existence of the Prism programme has raised concerns over the potential intrusion by the US in to the communications of Britons.
Such concerns have been enhanced by the insistence of the American authorities that it is not used to glean information on US citizens but foreign nationals overseas.
The leaked document, obtained by the Guardian, suggests Prism grants the NSA and FBI direct access to the systems of nine of the world's top internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo and Skype.
Information that can be retrieved ranges from historic material such as emails, photos and videos to live communications, it has been reported.
And according to the leaked document, "special programmes for GCHQ exist for focused Prism processing" – suggesting the British agency may have been receiving material from a part of the programme specifically designed to meet its needs.
The UK Government has been met with fierce opposition over plans to extend current snooping powers in this country to monitor a wider range of communications.
However, even those proposals do not go as far as what the Prism programme already appears to be doing which raises the prospect that GCHQ is able to circumvent legal restrictions in the UK by obtaining the information from the US instead.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the chairman of the ISC, told The Daily Telegraph: “We will get a report and decide if any further action is needed.”
Sir Malcolm confirmed that his committee was planning a trip to the USA “in the near future” adding that it would be “spending several days in Washington, in the United States meeting the American agencies”.
Mark Field MP, another member of the ISC, said the news “puts into some sharp focus our own debates about the Data Communications Bill.
“We need to find out what has happened and if it has security implications for UK citizens who might be caught up in this.
“One of the whole points of the Data Communications Bill that people to forget is to protect the interests of the individual.
“Everyone refers to as being a snoopers’ charter but it is to codify the protections that UK citizens can expect from international companies operating here as well”.
Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons’ Home Affairs committee, said he was worried that the revelation suggested the Government was attempting to bring in “the Snoopers’ Charter by the back door”.
He said: “I am astonished by these revelations which could involve the data of thousands of Britons.
“The most chilling aspect is that ordinary American citizens and potentially British citizens too were apparently unaware that their phone and online interactions could be watched.
“This seems to be the Snoopers’ Charter by the back door. I shall be writing to the Home Secretary asking for a full explanation.”
Robert Buckland MP, a part-time judge, added: “I want assurances from the US that our emails are not being examined.
“At a time when debate in the UK continues to rage about cyber privacy, this sort of activity is deeply worrying.”
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper added that the ISC should “report on the UK's relationship with the Prism programme, the nature of intelligence being gathered, the extent of UK oversight by Ministers and others, and the level of safeguards and compliance with the law”.
Lord Carlile, the Government’s former independent reviewer of counter-terrorism, called on the Coalition to guarantee US companies with an operation in the UK were not being forced to disclose information about Britons by American agencies.
American companies are required by the “Patriot Act”, passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to hand over information to US authorities.
He said: “The Patriot Act gives far more extensive powers to the American executive than we would ever contemplate in the UK.”
Lord Carlile added that he wanted guarantees that the Patriot Act had no jurisdiction in the UK and that “British law applies in the UK even to American companies”.
He said: “I do have a concern that the Government must ensure that any company operating within the UK operates within British jurisdiction.”
A GCHQ spokesman said: “GCHQ takes its obligations under the law very seriously. Our work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorised, necessary and proportionate, and that there is rigorous oversight, including from the Secretary of State, the Interception and Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Intelligence and Security Committee.”