I congratulate my Hon Friend, the Member for Skipton and Ripon, on securing this debate and on the eloquent way in which he has put his case.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this discussion and respond to the points raised.
I would also like to respond to allegations that the Government’s response to Edward Snowden’s leaking of stolen classified material represents an attempt to stifle the free press.
Allegations that GCHQ misled Ministers to strengthen the case for the Communications Data Bill
And suggestions that oversight of the intelligence agencies needs to improve.
These allegations are misleading, wrong and unfounded.
Misleading and unfounded
I would like to start by highlighting the huge damage to national security caused by reporting attributed to the highly classified material stolen by Edward Snowden.
My Hon Friend will understand why I will not comment on specific allegations made in the press, or provide a full assessment of the damage. To do so would exacerbate the harm already inflicted.
But there is no doubt that Snowden’s actions and the publication of material stolen by him have damaged UK national security.
As the Prime Minister noted last week, in many ways The Guardian admitted this when they agreed, when asked to by Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood, to destroy files.
The Prime Minister endorsed the excellent speech that the new head of MI5 made on 8 October, where Andrew Parker explained the risk associated with revealing intelligence capabilities. It is worth repeating. He said:
“What we know about the terrorists, and the detail of the capabilities we use against them together represent our margin of advantage. That margin gives us the prospect of being able to detect their plots and stop them.”
But “that margin is under attack”. Publishing details of intelligence capabilities not only damages the Government’s ability to protect national security, it “hands the advantage to the terrorists. It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will … that is why we must keep secrets secret, and why not doing so causes such harm.”
Media reporting is compromising essential work done by the intelligence services and the police.
In his witness statement to the High Court in the judicial review of the police’s decision to stop David Miranda at Heathrow airport in August, Deputy National Security Adviser Oliver Robbins also spoke of the damage caused by the disclosures.
He noted that the material seized from Mr Miranda is highly likely to describe techniques that have been crucial in life-saving counter-terrorist operations and other intelligence activities vital to UK national security. The compromise of which would do serious damage to national security and, ultimately, risk lives.
Those releasing this material would do well to understand that the types of capability that they are writing about are the types of capabilities we have relied on in recent years to stop terrorist plots, disrupt organised crime and put cyber criminals – including those exploiting children or illegally proliferating arms – behind bars.
Once an adversary knows if and how we can read their communications they will change their behaviour. When it was revealed that the US could read Osama Bin Laden’s communications in the late 1990s we didn’t hear from him again until September 2001.
I cannot go into more detail of the damage done and the future damage. But we expect to lose coverage of some very dangerous individuals and groups.
The threat remains very real. And only through the tireless efforts of the police and intelligence agencies do we keep those who wish us harm at bay.
A step ahead
If we are to do this - if we are to protect the British public - we need to be a step ahead of the terrorists and the criminals.
Secret intelligence gives us that edge. Regardless of whether you see Snowden as a whistleblower or traitor, revealing our capabilities destroys it.
I would like, briefly, to comment on the Government’s approach to The Guardian newspaper. The Guardian claimed to be holding highly classified Government material and had made plain their intention to report it. Of course, we were concerned about such material being held insecurely - without any of the controls that would usually protect it.
We were also concerned about the consequences of more of this material becoming public and the grave risks this would pose to operations, individuals and capabilities. This is why we asked the newspaper to return or destroy its files.
I appreciate that journalists may spend significant time weighing up whether an issue is damaging to national security and genuinely believe they are doing the right thing. However, they are simply not in a position to make national security assessments.
Supporting a free press
This Government strongly supports a free press. We have never denied the possibility of a debate on the issue of privacy and security or the work of the intelligence agencies.
But we cannot and do not condone the way The Guardian and others have sought to bring this debate about and the damage this has caused.
Any leak of security material is serious. It can put lives of our agents at risk and give valuable information to terrorists and others that wish us harm.
There have been calls from some to prosecute The Guardian and to compel it to help the intelligence agencies access material recovered from Mr Miranda.
On this I will say only that it is not for Ministers to direct the police to arrest or investigate anyone. It is for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to determine if a crime has been committed and what action to take as a result.
Given the ongoing police investigation following the stop of Mr Miranda at Heathrow, I will not comment further.
At this juncture, I want to respond to suggestions that there is no need to improve the police and intelligence agencies’ ability to acquire communications data.
These are plain wrong. There is a pressing need to ensure that the capabilities of our law enforcement and intelligence agencies keep pace with ever changing technology if they are to maintain their ability to tackle terrorism and serious crime.
We remain absolutely committed to ensuring that law enforcement and intelligence agencies have the powers they need to protect the public and ensure national security.
Nothing that has been alleged about GCHQ’s capabilities changes that. Communications technologies continue to change and we need to move with the times.
Two Parliamentary Committees, having considered the matter, have said there is a need for legislation. It was recently alleged that the Government wilfully withheld information from those Committees. I utterly reject that.
Hon Members will, I hope, have seen the letter published in The Guardian last week by my Rt Hon and Learned Friend, the Member for Kensington, in which he explained that the Intelligence and Security Committee took full, detailed evidence from the intelligence agencies during their inquiry on the Draft Communications Data Bill – as well as their recent inquiry into GCHQ’s activities.
The Committee’s report on the draft Bill concluded there remained a need for legislation in this area.
The suggestion that GCHQ’s capabilities are a silver bullet for the Comms Data gap is wrong. The Comms Data gap relates to what is happening in the UK. GCHQ is a foreign intelligence gathering agency. Legally its focus is on external communications.
Law enforcement agencies’ use of Comms Data needs to counter a wider range of threats than just GCHQ’s statutory purposes. The law prevents GCHQ-obtained material being used evidentially.
But this is a key requirement for the police. Comms Data legislation would represent an attempt by Government to fill a gap, which GCHQ has not filled before and will not be able to fill in future.
Hon Members will, I hope, agree there are essential advantages to be gained from intelligence gathering and staying one step ahead of those that wish to take away our freedoms.
Some have suggested that the UK’s intelligence agencies are somehow listening in on all our ‘phone calls and storing details of the contents of all our private conversations. This is simply not true. They have neither the interest nor capacity.
While bulk data is collected in some instances, this is only because it is not physically possible to target only terrorists’ communications. Sometimes you need to collect the haystack to find the needle.
Resources directed towards finding those needles are governed by a strict legal and policy framework, ensuring that all intelligence agency activity remains authorised, necessary and proportionate.
As has been confirmed by the European Court, the legal framework governing intelligence agencies’ work is fully compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.