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Brit spymasters: Cheers, Snowden. Terrorists are overhauling their comms

And it's all your fault, 007's M moans to MPs and lords

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Terrorists in Afghanistan and the Middle East are discussing changing their communication systems as a result of Edward Snowden's revelations, the boss of GCHQ said on Thursday.

Sir Iain Lobban, director of the UK's eavesdropping nerve center, made the claims during a meeting in London with MPs and lords on Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee [transcript PDF].

He said militants have chatted about Snowden's bombshell leaks, which have blown the lid on the NSA and GCHQ's latest global surveillance operations, and mulled whether they should move to other “communications packages” that could be less vulnerable to interception.

"We have seen chat among terrorist groups discussing how to avoid what they now perceive to be vulnerable," said Sir Iain.

The spy chief said he would only go into the specifics if the committee held a session closed to journalists and the public, claiming that revealing the details in the open would compound any damage done by Snowden's whistleblowing.

"The cumulative effect of press revelations will make our jobs harder for years to come," Sir Iain told the panel of politicians. Efforts to "uncover terrorist cells" and "battle sexual exploitation of children" have been undermined by the publication of documents leaked by ex-NSA contractor Snowden, the spy boss claimed.

Sir Iain appeared before the intelligence committee alongside Andrew Parker, director general of the Security Service (MI5), and Sir John Sawers, chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). The session marked the first time the agencies' spymasters had appeared together in public and spoken at an open parliamentary meeting – the chiefs normally give evidence in private.

The GCHQ director rarely, if ever, speaks in public, just like his staff, but he added: "I don't think secret means sinister."

Sir Iain's remarks are in line with those of MI5's new boss, who earlier claimed Snowden's leaks aided terrorists. MI6 chief Sir John added yesterday that the whistleblower has "put operations at risk", but did not elaborate further.

Spook masters enjoy a cosy chat

The questioning by politicians was friendly, and difficult topics weren't pressed or even raised. For example, Sir Iain was not asked about reports that GCHQ is working with the NSA to crack or nobble popular encryption systems, an effort heavily criticized by web grandfather Sir Tim Berners-Lee earlier in the day.

The thorny topic of whether America and Britain's worldwide dragnet surveillance of internet traffic, the tapping of trans-Atlantic fibre-optic cables and other tactics alleged by Snowden, may be damaging to the UK's higher ambitions of becoming the best place in the world for e-commerce wasn't even raised.

The lack of probing questions came as no great surprise. Details of intelligence techniques and inquiries into ongoing operations were declared off limits before the event.

Sir Iain denied that his agency listened into the telephone calls or read emails of the public as a whole. "That would not be proportionate and that would not be legal," he said. All three spy chiefs said their operatives worked within the law. The committee previously cleared GCHQ of any wrongdoing in its cooperation with the NSA on PRISM.

MI5 chief Andrew Parker claimed that 34 terrorist plots had been thwarted in the UK since the London Underground bombings in 2005, but there were no followup questions so it's unclear what role, if any, electronic spying played in those counter-terrorism operations. One or two of the foiled attacks would have caused mass casualties if successful, we're told.

During the hearing, Parker said that the £2bn annual budget for the intelligence services accounted for six per cent of the UK's yearly defense spending, adding that government ministers felt this level of expenditure was proportionate.

The spy chiefs were asked why their spooks had failed to predict the end of the Cold War, the 9/11 attacks in New York, and the Arab Spring uprising. MI6 chief Sir John responded: "We are not crystal ball gazers; we are intelligence agencies. We could all see the fault lines in Arab societies but no one predicted when the earthquake would hit." ®

Comment

For 007 fans out there, Sir John dismissed comparisons between him and MI6 boss M in the James Bond universe. Blighty's real spook chief said his spies don't go out into the field and report back two months later with a new blonde (or blond) on their arm. Field agents are in constant communication, he said.

But, to me, that's pretty how Bond has been portrayed for decades, stretching back to the Roger Moore era, at least. Moore's Bond was the last one to regularly go off grid, though admittedly Daniel Craig's Bond did disappear for months after he'd been shot and left for dead at the beginning of Skyfall.

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