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British Spies Aren’t James Bonds, and 7 Other Things We Learned from Britain’s Landmark Intelligence Hearing

British Spies Aren’t James Bonds, and 7 Other Things We Learned from Britain’s Landmark Intelligence Hearing

In an unprecedented parliamentary hearing resembling a scene from Skyfall, three British intelligence chiefs made the case for spying and secrecy in the modern world, while assuring the assembled that their agencies adhere to strict legal and ethical guidelines. The heads of Britain’s electronic spying agency (GCHQ), domestic security service (MI5), and secret intelligence service (MI6) appeared before Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee Thursday to answer questions about the scope and nature of their surveillance operations.

It was a major departure for the notoriously secretive agencies. Before 1992 — when the identity of MI5’s director was made public for the first time — the chiefs tended to avoid the spotlight. The British government didn’t even acknowledge the existence of MI6 until 1994. But in a 90-minute open session, MI5’s Andrew Parker, MI6’s John Sawers, and GCHQ’s Iain Lobban appeared unfazed as they were quizzed about torture, terrorism, and privacy in the wake of the leaks by NSA contractor Edward Snowden. Naturally, the presence of Britain’s most famous spy — James Bond — was acutely felt, if only because Sawers used him to illustrate how the agencies do not operate these days.

Here are a few other claims made Thursday by the British spy chiefs:

1. GCHQ does not spy on (most of) its citizens: When asked whether GCHQ spies on innocent civilians in its efforts to weed out a "minority of evildoers," Lobban insisted that the agency does not listen to the phone calls or read the emails of the vast majority of citizens. "I don’t employ the type of people who would do [that]," he argued. "If they were asked to snoop, they would leave the building." But he acknowledged that plenty of communication is necessarily monitored in an effort to "draw out the needles" in the haystack.

"It would be very nice if all terrorists or serious criminals used a particular method of communication and everybody else used something else," he said. "That is not the case.… If you are a terrorist, a serious criminal, a proliferator, a foreign intelligence target, or if your activities pose a genuine threat to the national or economic security of the UK, there is a possibility that your communications will be monitored. If you’re not, and if you’re not in contact with one of those people, then they won’t be. And that’s true if you’re British, you’re foreign, and wherever you are in the world."

2. Al Qaeda et al. are "rubbing their hands with glee" about Snowden leaks: Lobban told the panel that in the five months since the NSA leaks, GCHQ has intercepted chatter among terrorist groups about "how to avoid what they perceive as vulnerable communications methods." MI5’s Parker echoed the point: "It’s clear that our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee," adding that al Qaeda is "lapping" up the leaks and using them to its advantage.

Both officials came down hard on media coverage of the NSA leaks. "The leaks from Snowden have been very damaging," Lobban said. "They put our operations at risk.… The cumulative effect of the media coverage will make our jobs far, far harder for years to come."

3. Secrets are secrets are secrets, and that’s how it should be: While all three chiefs acknowledged that greater transparency would ease the public’s concerns over privacy, they nevertheless maintained that secrecy is essential to security and were unapologetic about the secrets they have kept. "There will always be secrets," Parker said. "The reason why things are secret is not because we’re somehow embarrassed about them or we want to keep them from the public. It’s because we need to keep them from the people we are investigating and carrying out operations against."

Lobban argued that the public need not worry about their goings-on because the agencies are accountable to publicly elected officials who monitor their operations. "It feels strange to say we have nothing to hide given that we work within this ring of secrecy, but that ring of secrecy has oversight mechanisms," he said. "I don’t think ‘secret’ means ‘sinister.’"

4. Electronic surveillance is essential to national security: Noting that all areas of government use technology to achieve their goals, MI6’s Sawers argued that intelligence agencies should have the same freedom to do so. "It would be bizarre to think that the one area which should be excluded from taking full advantage of modern technology is keeping this country safe," he said "We have an extraordinarily difficult task.… If you end up diminishing our ability to use technology … our country will be less safe."

5. Britain spies on other countries, but not very many: When asked whether "everyone is spying on everyone else," Lobban said, "We have limited resources — of course we don’t spy on everyone. There are very few countries where we actively have operations." Although he declined to name those countries, he added that operations "are targeted towards the highest-priority challenges that this government faces, and everything we do is authorized by ministers."

6. Intelligence agencies do not torture: Asked about recent allegations that British agents were complicit in the torture of detainees, the chiefs stated that they are unequivocally opposed to the mistreatment of detainees. "There’s a very clear government policy that applies across the agencies," Parker said. "We do not participate in, incite, encourage, or condone mistreatment or torture. And that is absolute." Sawers added: "If there’s a serious risk that our questions would prompt the maltreatment or torture of a detainee, we would consult ministers about that. And if we knew that that was going to happen, we wouldn’t even think about that in the first place, and we wouldn’t bother ministers about it. "

7. Terrorism in Northern Ireland is dying, but elsewhere it’s growing: The chiefs stated that the terrorist threat is growing, both in Britain and overseas. Sawers noted that since the 2005 London bombings, the agencies have "foiled" 34 other terrorist plots. When asked whether this expanding threat is diverting resources away from terrorism in Northern Ireland, Parker said that the situation in Northern Ireland is under control and that the region would soon be free from the threat of terrorism. "The people we’re talking about are a small number of people," he said, "a residue of terrorism from what I’d all a bygone era."

8. Intelligence agencies aren’t filled with James Bonds: The chiefs dedicated ample testimony to assuring the panel that their agencies operate within the law and are accountable to various levels of government — in other words, their spies are a far cry from 007. "The idea of sending an agent off into the field like James Bond, and then he comes back two months later and reports — it doesn’t work that way," Sawers said. Field agents, he added, are in constant communication with the head office and receive guidance at every stage of an operation.

Watch a video of the hearing here.