Foreign Secretary William Hague dismissed as “baseless” accusations that British intelligence services tried to circumvent the law by accessing information about U.K. citizens obtained from a U.S. surveillance program.
“Our agencies practice and uphold U.K. law at all times,” Hague said in a statement to the House of Commons in London today. Intelligence supplied by the U.S. is subject to the “full range” of U.K. laws, he said.
Hague was responding to a report in the Guardian newspaper on June 8 that the U.S. program to gather telephone and Internet data, codenamed Prism, may have supplied information about British citizens to the GCHQ security agency. Prime Minister David Cameron earlier today defended the intelligence services, saying he was satisfied they “operate within the law.”
The source of the disclosures about the U.S. program is Edward Snowden, who is now in Hong Kong, according to the Guardian and the Washington Post. The 29-year-old American, a former technical assistant for the Central Intelligence Agency, provided the information to journalists and revealed his identity voluntarily, according to a video interview posted on the website of the Guardian.
It may be up to China to decide if Snowden could be sent to the U.S. Under an extradition treaty signed in 1996, Hong Kong and the U.S. agreed to surrender those wanted for prosecution or for imposition of a sentence. China, which has sovereignty over Hong Kong, can refuse the transfer if it relates to its defense and foreign affairs.
Alex Carlile, a Liberal Democrat lawmaker who used to have the job of reviewing the behaviour of intelligence agencies, told Sky News he thought they had “entirely obeyed the law” with the U.S. data.
“If a potentially critical attack was warned by the U.S. using their powers, surely we would expect them to pass on that information,” he said. “It would be completely irresponsible of the U.K. authorities not to act on it.”
U.S. President Barack Obama defended the existence of classified programs on June 7, the day after the Guardian and the Washington Post newspapers reported, citing classified documents, that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency had accessed the central servers of nine U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs to collect data on U.S. residents’ telephone calls and foreign nationals’ Internet activity.
The opposition Labour Party had requested Hague make a statement. Foreign affairs spokesman Douglas Alexander told the BBC today that information-sharing was essential between intelligence agencies. “The people who are trying to harm Britain work internationally,” he said.
Malcolm Rifkind, the former Conservative Foreign Secretary who chairs Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, said he was confident British spies had behaved within the law. He told the BBC that for any activity, “if it’s to do with someone in the U.K., they’ve got to get ministerial authority,” he said.
The Liberal Democrat Party had concerns about invasions of privacy, Business Secretary Vince Cable said. “The whole point about surveillance is, you have got to have it, whether you are dealing with terrorism or economic crimes,” he told Sky News. “But it has got to be proportionate. You can’t generalize snooping of individuals. And you have got to have some oversight, legal, political. And those are the questions which will obviously want to be probed.’”
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