In the wake of the stolen Snowden files on America’s National Security Agency, it is right and proper that Parliament—both the House in general, and Select Committees in particular—debates the balance between national security and freedom of the press, and limits to and oversight of the power of our intelligence services.
This debate, however, focuses on a narrower and darker issue: the responsibility of the editors of The Guardian for stepping beyond any reasonable definition of journalism into copying, trafficking and distributing files on British intelligence and GCHQ. That information not only endangers our national security but may identify personnel currently working in our intelligence services, risking their lives and those of their families.
In August 2013, the Brazilian citizen David Miranda was stopped at Heathrow airport under schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act 2000. Initially, The Guardian claimed that he was targeted merely because he is the partner of Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian reporter writing about the leaks. Mr Miranda had been held for hours, The Guardian said, and denied a lawyer, but within hours that story had unravelled. When challenged, the paper first added to its story that it had paid for Mr Miranda’s flights, but did not note in its story that that correction had been made. Later that night, after all the print deadlines had passed, The Guardian admitted that Mr Miranda had been offered a lawyer and had refused one, and that The Guardian had known that all along yet had allowed its false account to stand.
Following the Heathrow stop, a judge ruled that police were entitled to copy and analyse the documents and files carried by Mr Miranda that were in the national security interest. There is to be a court case later this month on the detention and whether the Act was used appropriately. That issue, of course, will be for the court to determine.
Oliver Robbins, deputy National Security Adviser in the Cabinet Office and security adviser to the Prime Minister, has described in a witness statement to the court case on Miranda the direct threat to the life of Government employees posed by the documents held and communicated by The Guardian, together with the grave threat to UK national security should they be released. In his statement, he lays out the careful, proportionate steps that Her Majesty’s Government have taken to engage with the newspaper and to agree protocols for future reporting, be it direct communication or the defence advisory notice system.
If my hon. Friend really is concerned about risks to British security, is he not concerned that UK Government secrets are accessible to hundreds of thousands of US Government employees? Perhaps that is why Mr Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old contract employee of three months’ standing, was able to access GCHQ files from Hawaii.
I agree that the NSA placed itself in a very odd situation.
The next step was to secure the documents and data, as there was a real fear that terrorists would seek to access that information by targeting The Guardian, and the Government had no confidence in the paper being able to protect the information it held. Unfortunately, the Government were not the only people making that assessment. The WikiLeaks hacker Jacob Appelbaum, who has worked with Glenn Greenwald, has tweeted repeatedly about the non-existent security under which
Guardian editors held those files. Last week, he pointed out that laser microphones are routinely used as listening devices through windows and that
’s so-called secure room has floor-to-ceiling windows ideal for such remote listening by any interested foreign power or terror cell.
“I’ve seen the horrible operational security at the Guardian over the last three years—it makes the New York Times look solid.”
And he scoffed:
“They shipped Top Secret documents by FedEX.”
Hackers have heavily implied on social media that they can access The Guardian’s US files.
I understand my hon. Friend’s points. He is thoughtful on such issues, so I carefully heed what he says. One issue I have never understood is that, for all the scaremongering about national security, if either Mr Miranda or The Guardian has impaired national security in any tangible way, why has nobody been charged?
If my hon. Friend looks at the witness documents for the court case, he will see that charge may be likely, but I do not think it is appropriate to comment on that in this place.
The Guardian agreed to the Government’s request to destroy the data it held in its London office, but soon after it not only revealed the confidential discussions that took place with Her Majesty’s Government but advertised to the world that it had sent copies of the files, including information on GCHQ, to The New York Times in an article titled “Guardian partners with New York Times over Snowden GCHQ files.” In its various discussions with the Government during August, The Guardian did not reveal that it had made copies of the files and sent them overseas.
Today’s debate is not an argument to muzzle the press. As Oliver Robbins is at pains to point out in his witness statement, there has been significant sensitivity to the fact that The Guardian is a newspaper. Like the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Nick Boles, I am deeply uncomfortable that a left-of-centre axis is driving us toward press regulation. Newspapers should be free to report, and they should be punished under existing laws if they commit crimes.
The Guardian was right, having received the NSA files, to report on them in some way. If journalism—receiving and reporting on leaks—were all that The Guardian had done, Parliament and MI5 would not now be involved. Indeed, when the full tale of the damage done to British security is revealed, our Government might be criticised not for how much it interfered with a newspaper but for how much it trusted one.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, circuitously, he is attacking not The Guardian’s journalism but the paper itself? By mentioning press regulation in the same breath, he is potentially in danger of being misinterpreted as joining the war of the
Daily Mail and others against
, all because of its pursuit of phone hacking.
I hope that by the end of my speech I will not be misinterpreted at all.
This debate is also not an argument against whistleblowing. Mr Snowden revealed NSA spying that may have been outwith the reach of Congress. It might be argued that that was whistleblowing, but as we know, he did not selectively take files on the matter; rather, he stole tens of thousands of files on legitimate and necessary spying, including by allies such as Britain.
I will not for the moment.
The Guardian has done no whistleblowing on GCHQ, and it has exposed no illegality. Story after story in the paper has been forced to concede that The Guardian has found no evidence whatever that our intelligence forces have broken the law.
Nor is this debate an attack on the politics of The Guardian. I enjoy the paper. I am a regular reader of certain sections, and I would be making exactly the same argument today if the paper in question was The Daily Telegraph or The Times.
As a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, I leave the Chamber in no doubt whatever that if I had done what The Guardian has done in relation to the classified material that we see, I have no hesitation in saying that I would expect to be charged. My hon. Friend mentioned the D notice system. Does he know whether The Guardian used or was approached under the terms of the D notices?
I will address that point shortly.
I believe we have some of the best oversight in the world of our intelligence services—judicial, ministerial and parliamentary—but we are right to keep testing, to keep questioning and to keep challenging.
My intention today is to highlight where The Guardian has crossed the line between responsible journalism and seriously risking our national security and the lives of those who seek to protect us. If action is not taken, there will be direct results for our national security, now and in the future.
I pay tribute to our ex-colleague, Louise Mensch, who through her blog, social media and columns has ensured that this major national security issue has been kept alive throughout.
On a point of order, Mr Caton, an orchestrated campaign is being launched against The Guardian, to undermine that newspaper and to give the totally false impression that it is giving ammunition to terrorists. I also ask that the hon. Gentleman gives way in the usual manner—
Thousands of people working for British intelligence, GCHQ and other Government bodies have worked tirelessly over the years to repress attacks, in particular after 7/7 in London. With technology changing apace, they have kept track of and repelled many potential terrorist attacks. Think of where we were after 9/11 and where we are now: still vulnerable, but with much stronger awareness of the threats and much damage done to those who seek to hurt us. I want to pay tribute to all in our intelligence community, who work so hard and who have done so under pressure and bearing a great burden of responsibility. The fact that those women and men are unable to speak out is one of the reasons that I have called this debate.
It seems highly likely that The Guardian has risked our nation’s security several times over: first, in the detail that it has gone into in many of its reports, revealing the minutiae of programmes, showing PowerPoint images and laying out to those who seek to harm us in great detail the techniques that we use to counter them. Reports in The Guardian earlier this summer went way beyond responsible journalism, giving away key details of UK intelligence strategy and operations. Take a look at the level of detail in those reports in June—parading as public interest, it was in fact commercial interest.
Moreover, The Guardian often seemed to publish not only for commercial gain, but out of fear. Jacob Appelbaum, angered that The Guardian’s story on the Tor network was being held up, threatened to publish compromising e-mails between him and Guardian reporter James Ball. Days later, The Guardian published details of the GCHQ attempt to decrypt parts of the Tor network, which is used to trade child abuse images, hardcore drugs and arms—
“an intelligence technique which should have remained secret”,
according to David Omand, ex-head of GCHQ.
In an online question-and-answer section, The Guardian claimed that it checked with US authorities before each of its reports was published. That did not happen in the UK before the Government’s intervention.
Secondly, and more chillingly, The Guardian has taken detailed security files and information and sent them all over the world. US editor Janine Gibson boasted that by far “the hardest challenge” has been the “Secure…movement of materials” and that
“we’ve had to do a great deal of flying people around the world”.
Where now is the earlier pretence to other British papers that David Miranda was merely a journalist’s husband?
In spite of the actions taken by Her Majesty’s Government in August to destroy the files held in The Guardian’s London office, those files are out there, highly vulnerable to terrorist infiltration. Not only that, those detailed files on GCHQ operations are now being handed to an infinite number of extra eyes via American journalists and even bloggers. Each person multiplies the risk to this country. It is unclear whether the information contained names, but it seems a strong possibility. From the reports on GCHQ, we know that The Guardian had detailed information about staff there, including the clubs and organisations that they were part of, and even reported on the sexuality of GCHQ gay and lesbian staff and on internal network chats.
Over the summer, The Independent also saw the Snowden files and wrote a highly damaging report on a middle eastern UK base. Similar to The Guardian, The Independent did not adequately balance journalism and the national interest. Unlike their Guardian colleagues, however, the Independent journalists soon stopped, stating:
“In August, we too were given information from the Snowden files. It pertained to the operation of the security services, was highly detailed, and had the capacity to compromise Britain’s security.”
“I had no role at all in that—those were 1 set of docs only about UK that G”—
“had. They made that choice without me.”
I must underline that point. The Guardian focused on sending abroad revelations not about the American National Security Agency, or whistleblowing; it chose to distribute information on our own intelligence agents at GCHQ, on programmes and people that it had admitted over and over again were legal—programmes that protect Guardian employees and their families.
To the Daily Mail last week, The Guardian denied only that it had revealed the names of spies, not of any GCHQ personnel. To communicate—not only to publish—any identifying information about GCHQ personnel is a terrorist offence under the Terrorism Act 2000. Mr Rusbridger has boasted that he is above the law, and said of co-operation with the Government:
“But once there was an explicit threat to go to law something changed”,
adding that he would not allow reporting to be limited “by judges”.
Finally, as if all that was not enough, The Guardian continues to threaten national security months after the Government intervened. It boasted online about how it has taken protections to avoid penetration by intelligence services and, as far as I know, has been far from helpful in assisting the intelligence services in their quest to work out what the damage potential is. That is not press freedom; that is The Guardian’s devastating impact on national security. The Guardian wrote its initial stories without any consultation with Government;
The Guardian trafficked files on GCHQ around the world; and
The Guardian has dragged its feet as the Government, police and intelligence services seek to limit the damage.
The Terrorism Act is clear about the illegality of communicating information about our intelligence staff and, specifically, GCHQ. The Official Secrets Act is equally clear about the illegality of communicating classified information that the recipient knows, or has reasonable cause to believe, to be to the detriment of national security. Last week, I wrote to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to ask him to investigate whether The Guardian has breached those two Acts. I urge the Minister to do everything possible to ensure that the police expedite their investigation. In particular, I ask him to ensure that The Guardian has been asked for a decrypted copy of all files to which it has access, so that we may protect our agents and operations.
For the sake of Britain’s national security and for those who protect it, we must pursue the issue that we have discussed today. If we do not, we risk grave consequences, major risks for those who seek to protect us and the setting of a terrible precedent—that hiding behind the cloak of journalism gives carte blanche to risk the state’s most important secrets, free of consequence and outside the law. In an age of the internet, blogging and self-publishing, that is a serious precedent to set.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Julian Smith on securing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the discussion and to respond to a number of the points made, albeit that I shall struggle to take interventions, given the time available. I also want to respond to allegations that the Government’s response to Edward Snowden’s leaking of stolen classified material represents an attempt to stifle the press, that GCHQ misled Ministers to strengthen the case for the draft Communications Data Bill, and that oversight of the intelligence agencies needs to improve. Those allegations are, respectively, misleading, wrong and unfounded.
I will 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 in the press, or provide a full assessment of the damage; that would exacerbate the harm already inflicted. 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 that when it agreed to destroy files when asked to by the Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Heywood.
The Prime Minister endorsed the excellent speech given by the new head of MI5, Andrew Parker, on
“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, but
“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.
On a point of order, Mr Caton. I seek your guidance. I know that in half-hour debates there is often not a lot of interest other than from the hon. Member whose debate it is and the Minister. However, on such a controversial issue, whatever the rights and wrongs of the speech we have just heard from Julian Smith, would it not be appropriate for the Minister to give way from time to time?
On a point of order, Mr Caton. You are the guardian of the reputation of this debate, and so far it has demeaned Parliament’s reputation, because we have had two speeches that were written and read with no attempt to engage us in debate. This is McCarthyite scaremongering that disgraces Parliament.
In his witness statement to the High Court during 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. If those techniques were compromised, it 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 they are writing about are those 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 did not 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 at bay those who wish us harm. 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 and, regardless of whether Snowden is thought to be a whistleblower or a traitor, revealing our capabilities destroys it.
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s intervention. It is right to say that it is obviously not for Ministers to direct the police to arrest or investigate anyone. He will understand that that would be inappropriate. It is for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to determine whether a crime has been committed and what action to take. Given the ongoing police investigation after Mr Miranda was stopped at Heathrow, it would be inappropriate to comment further. Ultimately, it is for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to assess the evidence.
I want to comment briefly on the Government’s approach to The Guardian, which claimed to hold highly classified Government material and made clear its intention of reporting 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 that that would pose to operations, individuals and capabilities. That is why we asked the newspaper to return or destroy its files.
I appreciate and respect the fact that journalists may spend significant time weighing up whether an issue is damaging to national security, and genuinely believe that they are doing the right thing. However, I respectfully suggest that they are simply not in a position to make national security assessments. The Government strongly support a free press. We have never denied the possibility of a debate on privacy and security or the work of the intelligence agencies, but we cannot condone the way in which others sought to bring this debate about and the damage it caused. Any leak of security material is serious. It can put the lives of our agents at risk and give valuable information to terrorists and others who wish us harm. As we have heard, there have been calls to prosecute, but that is not a matter for me; it is a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to assess.
I need to move on, as I have only three minutes left. I want to respond to suggestions that there is no need to improve the police and intelligence agencies’ ability to acquire communications data. That is 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 to 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 have considered the matter and said there is a need for legislation. It was recently alleged that the Government wilfully withheld information from those Committees. I reject that. I hope that hon. Members saw the letter from my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind in The Guardian last week, in which he explained that the Intelligence and Security Committee took full, detailed evidence from the intelligence agencies during its inquiry on the draft Communications Data Bill, as well as its recent inquiry on GCHQ’s activities. The Committee’s report on the draft Bill concluded that a need remains for legislation in this area.
I hope that hon. Members agree that there are essential advantages to be gained from intelligence-gathering and staying one step ahead. Some have suggested that the UK’s intelligence agencies are somehow listening in to all our phone calls and storing details of all our private conversations. That is simply not true. They have neither the interest nor the capability.
As the European Court of Human Rights has confirmed, the legal framework governing intelligence agencies’ work is fully compatible with the European convention on human rights. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary rightly stated earlier this year that the UK’s system of political, parliamentary, independent and judicial oversight of the intelligence agencies represents one of the most robust and comprehensive systems of oversight anywhere in the world. The system works well, and we should be proud of it.
Hon. Members will recall the Justice and Security Act 2013, which we were debating only nine months ago. The Act extended the remit of the ISC, strengthened its ability to provide robust oversight of the agencies, including of operational matters, made even clearer the ISC’s independence from Government, and almost doubled its resources.
On a point of order, Mr Caton. I seek guidance from you, as the Chair of such an important debate, on how parliamentarians may put on the record words spoken by none other than President Obama today about the disclosures. A White House statement said that some of them
“raise legitimate questions for our friends and allies about how these capabilities are employed”.
Further to that point of order, Mr Caton. How can we make the point that much of what appeared in The Guardian, which has been the subject of this debate, has led, certainly in the United States, to a wide-ranging inquiry into intelligence-gathering? What The Guardian published was certainly in the national interest.