As Guardian Snowden revelations attacked by spy chiefs, paper says journalists prevented 'catastrophic leak'

The Guardian has said that newspapers had stopped the Snowden leaks becoming “catastrophic” as its revelations said by security chiefs to have compromised national security.

MI6 chief Sir John Sawers said told MPs yesterday that terrorist group Al Qaeda were "rubbing their hands with glee" at the exposure of the surveillance methods used by GCHQ and the US National Security Agency by The Guardian and other newspapers.

GCHQ director Sir Iain Lobban, the director of GCHQ, said that in the five months since Snowden's revelations started appearing in the media, his organisation had monitored terrorist groups discussing in "specific terms" how to avoid communications systems they now considered to be vulnerable.

Sir John and Sir Iain gave evidence alongside MI5 director-general Andrew Parker in an unprecedented first public appearance by the heads of the three agencies before the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee.

The Guardian said in a statement: “We welcome the fact that the intelligence chiefs acknowledged that they need to be more open as a result of the Snowden disclosures, but were surprised that unlike in the US and Europe there was no substantive discussion at all about anything Snowden revealed.

"The disastrous loss of classified data was not the responsibility of journalists but of the intelligence community itself. It is only the involvement of global newspapers that prevented this information from spilling out across the web and genuinely causing a catastrophic leak.

"We understand that the agencies will always warn that any form of disclosure has a damaging impact on their work – but this cannot mean the end of all questioning and debate."

The three intelligence chiefs said they operated at all times within the framework of the law and did not engage in mass "snooping" against ordinary citizens.

Sir Iain suggested Snowden’s leaks they could help serious criminals and even paedophiles avoid detection as the success of surveillance operations depended upon the targets being "unaware or uncertain" of the methods being used against them.

When those methods were made public, the effect, he said, could be a "sudden darkening" of the intelligence picture.

"More often it is gradual, but it is inexorable. What we have seen over the last five months is near daily discussion amongst some of our targets," he said.

"We've seen terrorist groups in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and elsewhere in south Asia discussing the revelations in specific terms, in terms of the communications packages that they use, the communications packages that they wish to move to.

"We have actually seen chat around specific groups, including closer to home, discussing how to avoid what they now perceive to be vulnerable communications methods, or how to select communications which they now perceive not to be exploitable."

Asked whether the discussions related directly to the recent revelations about surveillance, Sir Iain said: "It is a direct consequence. I can say that explicitly."

Sir John said the leaks had been "very damaging", putting operations at risk and making it more difficult to recruit agents in dangerous situations abroad.

"It is clear that our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee, Al Qaeda is lapping it up," he said.

"We've an extraordinarily difficult task. We have to identify and recruit agents in the most exposed places – in the higher reaches of al Qaida, in the countries that are trying to do our country harm, secret states that are trying to do damage to us.

"We need to have the possibility of examining the intelligence, of drawing information that our partner agencies have, in order to identify those very brave individuals that are prepared to work with us against their undemocratic, secretive, oppressive societies, which cause us threat.

"If you end up diminishing our ability to use technology, we will be less able to have that advantage we have and our country will be less safe."

Parker said MI5 relied heavily upon the ability of GCHQ to intercept terrorist communications to disrupt plots in the UK.

"The advantage that we have as intelligence agencies that leads to that sort of opportunity can be fragile and if we lose it then we are just making a very difficult task even harder," he said.

Parker revealed that since the bombings in London in 7 July 2005, 34 terror plots (some aimed at mass casualties) had been disrupted in the UK.

The Guardian said in a statement: “The disastrous loss of classified data was not the responsibility of journalists but of the intelligence community itself. It is only the involvement of global newspapers that prevented this information from spilling out across the web and genuinely causing a catastrophic leak.

"We understand that the agencies will always warn that any form of disclosure has a damaging impact on their work – but this cannot mean the end of all questioning and debate."

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