Questions Raised About Whether Britain's Security Agency has Used Prism to Get Around the UK's Legal System

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. The debate over the US government's surveillance programs has gone global. The revelation that the US National Security Agency, the NSA, is collecting data on foreign communications is raising questions in many nations about whether that violates the privacy of citizens there. Coming up we'll hear about concerns in Germany, but first we turn to Britain, where Foreign Secretary William Hague has tried to reassure lawmakers in Parliament that the American surveillance programs do not encroach on UK privacy laws. The BBC's security correspondent, Gordon Corera, joins me now from London. What is known, Gordon, about the British role in helping or cooperating with the US programs?

Gordon Corera: Well, the UK intelligence agency, GCHQ, has an incredibly close relationship with America's NSA. Very, very close indeed, closer than with any other country in the world. And we do know that the UK agency, GCHQ, has made access through the Prism system to data. So there were 197 requests in one year by GCHQ for information from this US system. Now that revelation sparked huge queries, particularly whether GCHQ had used Prism to get around the UK legal system which imposes strict controls over when and how information can be accessed. Basically if you want to intercept someone's communications, you need a warrant, which has to be signed by a minister, and the query was, was Prism being used to get around that system of warrants and oversights. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, appeared in Parliament. He gave very few details other than to say, no, nothing was done which went round the existing legal framework.

Werman: Right, so the suggestion is GCHQ, as this Global Communications Headquarters, a secret monitoring group, that they would have done the work for Prism without going through British law?

Corera: Well, yes, exactly. The query was, could Prism, because of course the US has said, well, Prism doesn't spy on American citizens, but of course that means it could spy on British citizens. So people were saying, was the British state using Prism to get information on British citizens, and to do so without going through the normal legal channels within the UK. Now, the Foreign Secretary gave what appeared to be a categorical denial to that, although people have questioned whether there are some nuances which might allow it. But on the whole, he was saying, no, that's not the way it operated.

Werman: So the British government has denied that, but could there also exist maybe a reciprocal arrangement whereby the US is getting information on British citizens from the British government?

Corera: Well, you know what, this has always been one of the issues. GCHQ and NSA have such a close relationship. People have always asked do they use each other to get round their own country's laws. In other words, the NSA isn't supposed to spy on Americans, so could it ask GCHQ to do that? GCHQ isn't supposed to spy on Britons without certain legal authorities. Could it ask NSA to do that? Now that's always been a suspicion. The governments have said no, the same legal framework applies wherever the information comes from.

Werman: So break it down there. How do the Brits surveille their own people? How much is publically known?

Corera: Well, it's fascinating because there's a huge debate here about some new legislation. It's called the Communications Data Bill, but it's become known as the Snooper's Charter because people thought this new legislation would allow the state to snoop on their communications. What a lot of people didn't realize is the state already had that power. There were actually half a million requests for communications data in 2011 by the police and security services. This isn't the content of calls, but it's which numbers connected with each other, not what they actually said across that phone line, for instance, or in an email. But there's already a huge amount of it going on and people really didn't realize it. And so suddenly this piece of legislation came which simply wanted to expand that to new forms of communication, they went, we didn't really realize it applied to old forms of communication. This already happens. So I think it just shows that actually there is a fundamental lack of understanding amongst the public about what the state can already do and has the potential to do. And I think that's a big issue for government. They don't want to talk about this because they say, you talk about it too much you tip off the bad guys. You let them know what you're doing, they adjust their behavior, you can't collect intelligence, you can't stop terrorist attacks. But equally, you've got an issue about public confidence.

Werman: The BBC's Gordon Corera there.