The government is under pressure to respond to claims that the UK has pulled out agents from live operations after Russia and China hacked information leaked by Edward Snowden.
Security service MI6, which operates overseas and is tasked with defending UK interests, has removed intelligence agents from hostile countries, the Sunday Times reported over the weekend, citing unnamed officials at Downing Street and the Home Office. It said Moscow and Beijing have deciphered documents leaked by former NSA-contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Snowden downloaded over 1.7 million secret files form security agencies in the US and the UK in 2013, and leaked details about mass surveillance programmes including phone and Internet communications. He went to Russia – where he was eventually granted asylum – via Hong Kong and has claimed since that the encrypted files remain secure.
However, Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, said Snowden has done a huge amount of damage to the West’s ability to protect its citizens. “As to the specific allegations, we never comment on operational intelligence matters so I'm not going to talk about what we have or haven't done in order to mitigate the effect of the Snowden revelations, but nobody should be in any doubt that Edward Snowden has caused immense damage,” he told Sky News.
But Glenn Greenwald, a former Guardian journalist and the man who Snowden first contacted, told the BBC Radio 4 'Today' programme on Monday that the story was based on quotes from “unknown, unnamed cowards”. “It’s not journalism; it’s acting as subservient stenographers for the government,” he said.
Ewan MacAskill, one of the primary reporters in the Snowden revelations, prompted the government to respond to the claims openly in a Guardian article. “Anonymous sources are an unavoidable part of reporting, but neither Downing Street nor the Home Office should be allowed to hide behind anonymity in this case,” he wrote.
The report comes days after UK’s terrorism law watchdog said the rules governing the security services’ abilities to spy on the public needed to be overhauled. The 379-page report, 'A Question of Trust', was commissioned by the government last year under the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014.
The current framework was fragmented and obscure, David Anderson, QC said. Conservative lawmaker and former minister Andrew Mitchell also said the timing of the report was “no accident”. David Cameron has promised a swathe of new security measures, including more powers to monitor UK's communications and online activity in what critics have dubbed a 'snoopers' charter'.