Britain denies illegal spying


A CCTV camera trained on London's Parliament Square.


Oli Scarff

LONDON, UK — Suggestions that the US National Security Agency’s controversial Prism spying program helped security officials in Britain circumvent the law are “baseless,” Foreign Secretary William Hague said Monday.

He spoke in parliament in response to demands for information about the Guardian newspaper’s revelation that the government has had access to information obtained by Prism since at least June 2010.

Breaking the story last week, the Guardian reported that Government Communications Headquarters — the hub of Britain’s massive electronic surveillance operations — may have used Prism to skirt the legal process it would otherwise have had to initiate to obtain personal information from overseas sources.

“It has been suggested that GCHQ uses our partnership with the United States to get around UK law, obtaining information that they cannot legally obtain in the United Kingdom. I wish to be absolutely clear that this accusation is baseless,” Hague said.

“There is no doubt that secret intelligence, including the work of GCHQ, is vital to our country,” Hague added. “We take great care to balance individual privacy with our duty to safeguard the public and the UK's national security.”

He deflected inquiries into the program’s details, saying, “I will not be drawn into confirming or denying aspects of leaked information.”

The Guardian reported that the government prepared 197 intelligence reports last year based on information from Prism.

Speaking about Prism to the BBC over the weekend, Hague echoed President Barack Obama’s assertions that only those with something to hide should be concerned about Prism’s interception of data from Facebook, Google, Apple and other internet companies.

“If you are a law-abiding citizen of this country going about your business and your personal life you have nothing to fear — nothing to fear about the British state or intelligence agencies listening to the contents of your phone calls or anything like that,” Hague told host Andrew Marr.

Many found the assurances insufficient.

“Most ‘normal citizens’ have nothing hidden up our arses, Mister Hague, but it doesn’t mean we’re happy for you to perform a cavity search,” the author Rich Neville tweeted.

As the US government scrambles to manage the fallout from the explosive revelations into the size and scope of its surveillance programs, the British authorities are fielding demands from the public to explain what information they’re viewing and how they’re obtaining it.

Among them, Prime Minister David Cameron said the government’s practices are crucial for national security.

“I want to reassure people as prime minister, as the minister for the intelligence services, that I see every day the vital work they do to keep us safe, but it is vital work that is done under a legal framework, within the law, and subject to proper scrutiny by an Intelligence and Security Committee,” he said.

GCHQ will deliver a report on its engagement with Prism to the government on Tuesday.

In the House of Commons Monday afternoon, lawmakers seemed divided about their concerns.

Conservative Ben Wallace decried the Guardian’s investigation as a “non-story.”

However, Labour members of parliament Ronnie Campbell and Dennis Skinner angrily queried Hague, drawing comparisons with the government’s spying on private citizens during a landmark miners’ strike in the 1980s.

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Others encouraged greater transparency, even in covert operations.

“We should do more to explain what we’re doing,” said Rory Stewart, a Conservative lawmaker and former foreign service officer. “Unless we begin to explain more to the public, secret operations in the long term will not be sustainable.