LONDON — Britain’s intelligence chiefs, in unprecedented public testimony before Parliament, said Thursday that the published leaks of secret documents stolen by Edward J. Snowden, the former U.S. intelligence analyst, had damaged their ability to keep Britain safe.
“The leaks from Snowden have been very damaging, and they’ve put our operations at risk,” said John Sawers, the head of the foreign intelligence service, MI6. “It’s clear that our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee. Al-Qaida is lapping it up.”
Iain Lobban, the director of the eavesdropping agency, the Government Communications Headquarters, said terrorist groups in Afghanistan, South Asia and the Middle East “and closer to home” had discussed the Snowden revelations. They have assessed “the communications packages they use now and the communication packages they wish to move to,” he said, “to avoid what they now perceive to be vulnerable communications methods.”
Lobban called that “a direct consequence” of the leaks, adding: “Yes, I can say that explicitly. The cumulative effect of global media coverage will make our job far, far harder for years to come.”
Sawers, a former British ambassador to Egypt and the United Nations, said he was not sure that “the journalists managing this very sensitive information are particularly well placed, actually, to make those judgments,” an assertion that top editors have rejected, arguing that they are using care in deciding what to publish.
Andrew Parker, the head of the domestic security agency, MI5, was less explicit Thursday. But in a speech last month, he said the Snowden leaks had caused “enormous damage” to British security, “handing the advantage to the terrorists.”
The officials’ reactions are hardly a surprise, given their responsibilities and the varied nature of the global threats that face Britain and the West. But they were also at pains to try to reassure the British public that all three agencies followed British law, sought authorization from appropriate Cabinet ministers, did not condone torture and had learned from their mistakes, both foreign and domestic.
Lobban insisted that “secret does not mean sinister” or “unaccountable,” and that there was no mass surveillance of citizens despite the gathering of huge amounts of Internet and telephone data.
Parker insisted that his agency was committed to protecting “the sort of country we live in against threats to it,” saying that Britons “don’t want to live in a surveillance society, or North Korea — they want to live in a country like this, and our job is to keep it that way.”
He added: “The suggestion that somehow what we do is somehow compromising freedom and democracy. Of course, we believe the opposite to be the case.”
The public appearance before the Intelligence and Security Committee was a drastic change from the usual private testimony. It was only in 1992 that the name of the head of MI5 was made public, and it was not until 1994 that the government officially admitted that MI6 even existed.