Al-Qaeda operatives are “lapping up” the Edward Snowden revelations and transforming the way they communicate in order to avoid further monitoring by the NSA, according to British spymasters who were questioned in public for the first time on Thursday.
During an historic session held at the Houses of Parliament in London, intelligence bosses emerged from the shadows furious at what they saw as a betrayal by the Western media, which has published details of the methods by which terrorist organizations are tracked.
The heads of MI5, MI6 and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) said they had encountered “near daily” conversations about the leaks amongst operatives of al-Qaeda and their affiliates in the Middle East and South Asia. The terror cells were said to be seizing on the details leaked by Snowden and using that information directly to better disguise their communications and put intelligence operations at risk. “Our adversaries were rubbing their hands with glee,” said the head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, or “C” as he is known inside the organization, whose existence was not officially acknowledged until 1994.
Sawers was flanked by Sir Iain Lobban, the head of GCHQ, and MI5 director general Andrew Parker for the first formal public discussion of the activities of some of the world’s oldest and most respected spying agencies.
Almost immediately, Sawers felt compelled to explain that real spycraft differed markedly from what we see at the movie theater. “The idea of sending agents into the field like James Bond, it doesn’t work like that,” he said, explaining that spies were in constant contact with HQ.
While most of the hearing was conducted cordially, Lobban, who runs Britain’s equivalent to the NSA, was visibly angered by the widespread dissemination of the Snowden leaks. His fury appeared to be directed more at the media than the man who had stolen the secrets.
He said efforts to monitor and disrupt pedophiles and terrorists had been materially weakened by the security breach. “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 the 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.”
Asked to provide evidence of a link between information published in the Guardian and the groups’ activities, Lobban declined to discuss the details in public, but said: “It is a direct consequence. I can say that explicitly.”
Sawers dismissed claims that journalists in receipt of the Snowden leaks had ensured nothing sensitive was published. “I’m not sure the journalists managing these publications are particularly well placed to make that judgment,” 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-Qaeda is lapping it up.”
In the wake of the Snowden revelations, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, asked the intelligence chiefs whether there was too much spying on innocent citizens.
Lobban said his staff at GCHQ would happily focus on intercepting nothing but traffic from the bad guys if that were possible. “It would be very nice if terrorists or serious criminals used a particular method of communication and everybody else used something else,” he said. “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 anonymize and avoid identification. So we have to do detective work.”
He said Britain’s intelligence-gatherers hated collecting personal information from civilians. “If they were asked to snoop I wouldn’t have the workforce, they’d leave the building,” he said.