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PRISM scandal: Brit spooks operated within the law, say politicos

Committee wonders if framework for comms data access is 'adequate'

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Claims that Britain's intelligence agency GCHQ circumvented UK legislation by using America's controversial PRISM programme to access the content of private communications are false, parliamentarians concluded today.

The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), which is chaired by Tory politico Malcolm Rifkind and made up of peers and MPs, said that it had investigated whether spooks at Blighty's eavesdropping nerve centre had failed in their duty to follow the letter of the law.

It probed GCHQ's access to the content of communications, the legal framework which governs its access as well as the arrangements Brit spies have in place with their overseas counterparts.

The listening agency sent the committee a number of reports detailing counter-terrorist ops for which spooks were able to fetch intelligence from the US in any relevant area.

It also provided the politicos with a list of all the individuals who were subject to monitoring via such arrangements who were either believed to be in Britain or flagged up as UK nationals.

Additionally, GCHQ handed over a list of the warrants and internal authorisations that were in place for each of those people it targeted. It also submitted an unknown number of intelligence reports to the committee and information about the formal deals that regulated access to this material.

The panel said it had recently visited the US to discuss the PRISM programme with the National Security Agency and the politicians' Congress counterparts, as well as taking oral evidence from the director of GCHQ.

The ISC concluded:

It has been alleged that GCHQ circumvented UK law by using the NSA’s PRISM programme to access the content of private communications. From the evidence we have seen, we have concluded that this is unfounded.

We have reviewed the reports that GCHQ produced on the basis of intelligence sought from the US, and we are satisfied that they conformed with GCHQ’s statutory duties. The legal authority for this is contained in the Intelligence Services Act 1994.

Further, in each case where GCHQ sought information from the US, a warrant for interception, signed by a Minister, was already in place, in accordance with the legal safeguards contained in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.

The committee stated that the allegations GCHQ had circumvented UK law were very serious and noted that the rights of Brits could have been severely violated had the claims proved to be true.

In light of the argument that UK spooks had failed to seek proper authorisation by accessing PRISM, the panel of MPs and peers called on proper consideration being given to "whether the current statutory framework [the Intelligence Services Act 1994, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000] governing access to private communications remains adequate."

The ISC said:

In some areas the legislation is expressed in general terms and more detailed policies and procedures have, rightly, been put in place around this work by GCHQ in order to ensure compliance with their statutory obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998.

We are therefore examining the complex interaction between the Intelligence Services Act, the Human Rights Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, and the policies and procedures that underpin them, further.

It added that the Interception of Communications Commissioner was already looking at the issue.

Home Secretary Theresa May - whose draft Communications Data Bill, colloquially labelled a Snoopers' Charter, was rejected by Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg - has recently called for the Human Rights Act to be "scrapped". ®

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