Bugging allies ‘acceptable’ – MP

Sir Malcolm Rifkind

Spying on diplomats and the heads of state of friendly countries is sometimes necessary if national security is at stake, the Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee told a recent Consular Corps meeting.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind said while Britain should strive to honour the Vienna Conventions he added the “occasional breech” was sometimes necessary “when issues of peace and war hinged on the ability to find out intelligence”.

But he said there should be “high standards” governing decisions to intercept the communications of the head of state of an ally.

“Decisions of such a sensitive nature should be taken only at the foreign minister, prime minister or presidential level… They need to ask themselves if intercepting the communications is of such importance to national security that it is worth taking the risk of damaging bilateral relations.”

He added: “In my personal opinion, bugging the phone of a head of state of a friendly country is usually a pretty dumb thing to do.”

But he pointed out that Britain may have “serious problems” with governments normally considered friendly, such as Argentina.

“Argentina continues to have a claim on the Falkland Islands and we went to war over them… There is no reason why 95 per cent of the time we should be interested in Argentine government communications. But if they were again thinking of an attack, I would expect our agencies, with the government’s approval, to find out what’s going on. ”

Strict oversight

But he said in the UK the intelligence agencies were subject to strict oversight. Any applications to intercept communications required the authority of the Home Secretary or Foreign Secretary; there was parliamentary scrutiny on the activities of the intelligence agencies; and there was judicial oversight to ensure that any warrants granted were justified.

These checks were under review by the Intelligence and Security Committee, he added. The Committee was investigating whether the law was keeping pace with technology. It was examining how to share more information with the public without compromising national security. It was also looking at the issue of proportionality and whether the benefit derived from interceptions justified the intrusion of privacy.

He stressed that intelligence agencies were able to filter out a fraction of the “bulk data” that is gathered while most is discarded.

However, he said a small amount of the communications would continue to be intercepted and remained a vital defence in an age of global terrorism. He added that every serious terrorist plot in the UK that had been thwarted over the past decade had relied on intercept evidence.

Damaging revelations

Sir Malcolm said the actions of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden had been damaging to national security, not simply because of the content of the disclosed files, but because they had revealed to terrorists the capabilities of the intelligence services.

“The crucial thing about successful intelligence is not just about the capabilities you have but that your potential enemy doesn’t know about it. Terrorist and criminal organisations with very sophisticated communications are likely to adapt their encryptions.”