Protest in support of Edward Snowden, Hong Kong

Snowden’s treachery has put the lives of our spies at risk, says top intelligence expert

Despite the self-righteous pomposity of Edward Snowden, who claims from his FSB-protected Moscow hideout that he doesn’t want to live in a society that places its citizens under surveillance, his revelations about the secret state have told us little.

GCHQ exists precisely to do what Snowden has ‘uncovered’. Who is genuinely surprised that, in its efforts to protect this country, GCHQ is monitoring all possible terrorist means of communication? Who wouldn’t be outraged if it were it not?

What Snowden has done by revealing the detail of collection techniques as well as vast quantities of highly sensitive intelligence material, is jeopardise our national security and the lives of those who take great risks to protect us.

Protest in support of Edward Snowden, Hong Kong
Protest in support of Edward Snowden, Hong Kong. Image: WIkimedia Commons

To expose at the very least 58,000 secret and top secret British intelligence documents to the gaze of Chinese and Russian authorities and to publicise the details of intelligence collection capability is the most damaging act of betrayal in the history of intelligence treachery.

There is no question the Chinese and the Russians will be pulling out the stops to exploit this windfall.

The same applies to our tech-savvy jihadist enemies, who are more than capable of rapidly learning the lessons Snowden has taught them. I am no less troubled than anyone else about the extent to which private citizens are spied on.

In my opinion only one thing can justify the range and scale of activity that MI5, GCHQ and the NSA are engaged in. That is a serious and lethal threat to the people of this country. Today that threat comes from terrorism.

As a soldier I have fought terrorism and been attacked by terrorists. Involved in intelligence work in London, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, I have read and analysed thousand upon thousand of secret intelligence reports including phone and email intercepts.

I know first-hand the danger that we face from terrorism and the vital role intelligence plays in protecting us from it.

Some 100 years ago Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division intercepted every message sent on transatlantic cables between Europe and the United States.

This was extremely risky as it involved intercepting communications between neutral powers, but nobody today would question its ultimate legitimacy or its value in defeating the Kaiser.

Compared with an all-out struggle for national survival, use of such measures in the shadowy fight against terrorism might seem harder to reconcile. But it is just as important nonetheless.

Few would argue with targeted surveillance against known suspects. But we cannot then ignore the unknown terrorists.

And in collecting information, the intelligence services have no choice but to collect material that has nothing to do with terrorism.

While working for the Joint Intelligence Committee and Cobra, I was involved with many cases where GCHQ and NSA communications intelligence led directly to the disruption of terrorist activity both here in the UK and against British soldiers and civilians abroad.

Communications intercept has played a significant role in every important MI5 terrorist investigation since 9/11, with more than 330 suspects convicted of terrorism offences.

Snowden is only partially responsible for the harm that he has done. Far greater culpability lies with the US intelligence apparatus for permitting such damaging theft of their secret intelligence, especially in the wake of the Bradley Manning fiasco.

By bringing their clearly inadequate internal security measures up to date, the NSA can and must prevent recurrence of Snowden’s betrayal.

Published in the Daily Mail, 13 October 2013. © Richard Kemp