UK spymasters hit out at Snowden in televised grilling

UK spymasters hit out at Snowden in televised grilling

LONDON - Britain´s top spy chiefs said in a rare televised appearance Thursday that the intelligence leaks by Edward Snowden have left its enemies "rubbing their hands with glee" and caused terror groups to change the way they communicate.

The heads of foreign spy agency MI6, its domestic counterpart MI5 and electronic eavesdropping agency GCHQ also denied in their evidence to parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee that Britons were subject to mass surveillance.

In a hearing held under tight security and with a two-minute time delay to prevent accidental disclosures, MI6 boss John Sawers said Snowden's revelations of mass US and British surveillance programmes were a gift to Al-Qaeda and other terrorists.

"The leaks from Snowden have been very damaging, they put our operations at risk. Our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee. Al-Qaeda is lapping it up," Sawers told the committee.

GCHQ boss Iain Lobban added that the revelations by the fugitive US leaker had led "terrorist groups" in the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere to modify the way they communicate.

"We have intelligence on (and) we have actually seen chat around specific terrorist groups, including closer to home, discussing how to avoid what they now perceive to be vulnerable communications methods," Lobban said.

Snowden, a former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who has been granted temporary asylum in Russia, has revealed massive US electronic surveillance programmes in recent months, sending shockwaves around the world.

The leaks have strained Washington's ties with its allies over suggestions that it has eavesdropped on dozens of world leaders, including by tapping the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Thursday's hearing marked an unprecedented joint public appearance for the heads of the three British intelligence agencies, who could be seen on television sitting in a row as they answered questions from lawmakers.

They insisted that they worked hard to balance national security with citizens' right to privacy.

"We do not spend our time listening to the telephone calls or reading the emails of the majority. It would not be proportionate, it would not be legal. We do not do it," Lobban told the committee.

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