With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement on the work of the Government Communications Headquarters—GCHQ—its legal framework and recent publicity about it. As Foreign Secretary, I am responsible for the work of GCHQ and the Secret Intelligence Service—MI6—under the overall authority of the Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is responsible for the work of the Security Service, MI5.
Over the past few days, there have been a series of media disclosures of classified US documents relating to the collection of intelligence by US agencies, and questions about the role of GCHQ. The US Administration have begun a review into the circumstances of these leaks in conjunction with the Justice Department and the US intelligence community. President Obama has been clear that US work in this area is fully overseen and authorised by Congress and relevant judicial bodies, and that his Administration are committed to respecting the civil liberties and privacy of their citizens.
The Government deplore the leaking of any classified information, wherever it occurs. Such leaks can make the work of maintaining the security of our own country and that of our allies more difficult, and by providing a partial and potentially misleading picture they give rise to public concerns. It has been the policy of successive British Governments not to comment on the detail of intelligence operations. The House will therefore understand that I will not be drawn into confirming or denying any aspect of leaked information. I will be as informative as possible, to give reassurance to the public and Parliament. We want the British people to have confidence in the work of our intelligence agencies, and in their adherence to the law and democratic values, but I also wish to be very clear that I will take great care in this statement and in answering questions to say nothing that gives any clue or comfort to terrorists, criminals and foreign intelligence services as they seek to do harm to this country and its people.
Three issues have arisen in recent days which I wish to address. First, I will describe the action that the Government are taking in response to recent events. Secondly, I will set out how our intelligence agencies work in accordance with UK law and subject to democratic oversight. Thirdly, I will describe how the law is upheld with respect to intelligence co-operation with the United States, and deal with specific questions that have been raised about the work of GCHQ.
First, in respect of the action we have taken, the Intelligence and Security Committee has already received some information from GCHQ and will receive a full report tomorrow. My right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who chairs the Intelligence and Security Committee, is travelling to the United States on a long-planned visit with the rest of the Committee. As he has said, the Committee will be free to decide what, if any, further action it should take in the light of that report. The Government and the agencies will co-operate fully with the Committee, and I pay tribute to its members and their predecessors from all parties.
Secondly, the ISC’s work is one part of the strong framework of democratic accountability and oversight that governs the use of secret intelligence in the United Kingdom, which successive Governments have worked to strengthen. At its heart are two Acts of Parliament: the Intelligence Services Act 1994 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
The Acts require GCHQ and the other agencies to seek authorisation for their operations from a Secretary of State, normally the Foreign Secretary or Home Secretary. As Foreign Secretary, I receive hundreds of operational proposals from the SIS and GCHQ every year. The proposals are detailed: they set out the planned operation, the potential risks and the intended benefits of the intelligence. They include comprehensive legal advice describing the basis for the operation, and comments from senior Foreign Office officials and lawyers. To intercept the content of any individual’s communications in the UK requires a warrant signed personally by me, the Home Secretary, or by another Secretary of State. This is no casual process. Every decision is based on extensive legal and policy advice. Warrants are legally required to be necessary, proportionate and carefully targeted, and we judge them on that basis.
Considerations of privacy are also at the forefront of our minds, as I believe they will have been in the minds of our predecessors. We take great care to balance individual privacy with our duty to safeguard the public and the UK’s national security. These are often difficult and finely judged decisions, and we do not approve every proposal put before us by the agencies. All the authorisations that the Home Secretary and I give are subject to independent review by an Intelligence Services Commissioner and an Interception of Communications Commissioner, both of whom must have held high judicial office and report directly to the Prime Minister. They review the way these decisions are made to ensure that they are fully compliant with the law. They have full access to all the information that they need to carry out their responsibilities, and their reports are publicly available. It is vital that we have that framework of democratic accountability and scrutiny.
I have nothing but praise for the professionalism, dedication and integrity of the men and women of GCHQ. I know from my work with them how seriously they take their obligations under UK and international law. Indeed, in his most recent report, the Interception of Communications Commissioner said:
“it is my belief…that GCHQ staff conduct themselves with the highest levels of integrity and legal compliance.”
This combination of needing a warrant from one of the most senior members of the Government, decided on the basis of detailed legal advice, and such decisions being reviewed by independent commissioners and implemented by agencies with strong legal and ethical frameworks, with the addition of parliamentary scrutiny by the ISC, whose powers are being increased, provides one of the strongest systems of checks and balances and democratic accountability for secret intelligence anywhere in the world.
Thirdly, I want to set out how UK law is upheld in respect of information received from the United States, and to address the specific questions about the role of GCHQ. Since the 1940s, GCHQ and its American equivalents—now the National Security Agency—have had a relationship that is unique in the world. This relationship has been and remains essential to the security of both nations, has stopped many terrorist and espionage plots against this country, and has saved many lives. The basic principles by which that co-operation operates have not changed over time. Indeed, I wish to emphasise to the House that although we have experienced an extremely busy period in intelligence and diplomacy in the past three years, the arrangements for oversight, and the general framework for exchanging information with the United States, are the same as under previous Governments. The growing and diffuse nature of threats from terrorists, criminals or espionage has only increased the importance of our intelligence relationship with the United States. That was particularly the case in the run-up to the Olympics. The House will not be surprised to hear that our activity to counter terrorism intensified and rose to a peak in the summer of last year.
It has been suggested that GCHQ uses our partnership with the United States to get around UK law, obtaining information that it cannot legally obtain in the United Kingdom. I wish to be absolutely clear that that accusation is baseless. Any data obtained by us from the United States involving UK nationals are subject to proper UK statutory controls and safeguards, including the relevant sections of the Intelligence Services Act, the Human Rights Act 1998, and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
Our intelligence-sharing work with the United States is subject to ministerial and independent oversight, and to scrutiny by the Intelligence and Security Committee. Our agencies practise and uphold UK law at all times, even when dealing with information from outside the United Kingdom. The combination of a robust legal framework, ministerial responsibility, scrutiny by the intelligence services commissioners, and parliamentary accountability through the Intelligence and Security Committee should give a high level of confidence that the system works as intended.
That does not mean that we do not have to work to strengthen public confidence whenever we can, while maintaining the secrecy necessary to intelligence work. We have strengthened the role of the ISC through the Justice and Security Act 2013, to include oversight of the agencies’ operations as well as their policy, administration and finances. We have introduced the National Security Council so that intelligence is weighed and assessed alongside all other sources of information available to the Government, including diplomatic reporting and the insights of other Government Departments, and all that information is judged carefully in deciding the Government’s overall strategy and objectives.
There is no doubt that secret intelligence, including the work of GCHQ, is vital to our country. It enables us to detect threats against our country ranging from nuclear proliferation to cyber attack. Our agencies work to prevent serious and organised crime, and to protect our economy against those trying to steal our intellectual property. They disrupt complex plots against our country, such as when individuals travel abroad to gain terrorist training and prepare attacks. They support the work of our armed forces overseas and help to protect the lives of our men and women in uniform, and they work to help other countries lawfully to build the capacity and willingness to investigate and disrupt terrorists in their countries, before threats reach us in the United Kingdom.
We should never forget that threats are launched at us secretly, new weapons systems and tactics are developed secretly, and countries or terrorist groups that plan attacks or operations against us do so in secrecy. So the methods we use to combat these threats must be secret, just as they must always be lawful. If the citizens of this country could see the time and care taken in making these decisions, the carefully targeted nature of all our interventions, and the strict controls in place to ensure that the law and our democratic values are upheld, and if they could witness, as I do, the integrity and professionalism of the men and women of our intelligence agencies, who are among our nation’s very finest public servants, I believe they would be reassured by how we go about this essential work.
The British people can be confident in the way our agencies work to keep them safe. Would-be terrorists, those seeking to spy against this country or those who are the centre of organised crime should be aware that this country has the capability and partnerships to protect its citizens against the full range of threats in the 21st century, and that we will always do so in accordance with our laws and values, but with constant resolve and determination.