The United Kingdom’s spy chiefs gave public, televised testimony to lawmakers Thursday for the first time ever, defending their actions amid a fierce international debate over intelligence tactics following allegations of spying on other governments.
With anger growing over reports that the United States spied on its allies — as disclosed in leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden — similar allegations against the U.K. have drawn renewed attention. A series of articles earlier this year in The Guardian and The Washington Post implicated the British government in programs targeting foreign leaders and diplomats at the 2009 Group of 20 summit.
Andrew Parker, the head of the U.K.’s domestic security agency, MI5, and John Sawers, head of the foreign spy service, MI6, appeared Thursday along with Iain Lobban, director of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the electronic surveillance agency, to field questions from parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee.
Against the backdrop of the global debate over privacy and security, Lobban said his spies have detected their targets engaging in "near-daily discussion" of the unauthorized disclosures.
Sawers was more explicit.
"It's clear that our adversaries are rubbing their hands in glee," he told lawmakers. "Al-Qaeda is lapping it up."
Parker has previously described the leaks as a "gift" to dangerous groups.
Snowden, who is currently living in Russia under asylum, leaked thousands of classified documents that reveal details of the U.S. National Security Agency’s spy programs in the U.S. and abroad.
All three spy chiefs insisted their agencies operate within the law, assuring parliamentarians that their work is legal and proportionate.
"We do not spend our time listening to the telephone calls or reading the emails of the majority," Lobban said.
Amid continuing revelations about the global scope of U.S. and British espionage, Parker defended the U.K. intelligence community.
"The suggestion that somehow what we do is somehow compromising freedom and democracy — we believe the opposite to be the case," he said.
During a wide-ranging 90-minute session, the spy chiefs discussed the war in Syria, cyberattacks against the U.K. and lingering fears over Northern Ireland.