Under pressure Hague denies law broken as internet snooping row grows

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  By Lynn Malone and Martin Kelly

The UK Government is refusing to confirm or deny if data gathering centre GCHQ used information accessed by the US snooping agency Prism.

Allegations that GCHQ bypassed the law to gain information on people in the UK are “baseless” according to William Hague, who has come under pressure to address claims that the UK sought the aid of the US in order to circumvent privacy laws.

The foreign secretary, in a statement to Parliament, said the information obtained by the UK was “essential to the security of the country” and had saved many lives.

“It has been suggested that GCHQ uses our partnership with the United States to get around UK law, obtaining information that they cannot legally obtain in the United Kingdom,” adding, “I wish to be absolutely clear that this accusation is baseless.

“Any data obtained by us from the United States involving UK nationals is subject to proper UK statutory controls and safeguards including the relevant sections of the Intelligence Services Act, the Human Rights Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.”

The foreign secretary said that the UK’s intelligence sharing work with the United States is subject to ministerial and independent oversight and to scrutiny by the intelligence and security committee.

“Our agencies practice and uphold UK law at all times even when dealing with information from outside the United Kingdom.” He said.

Earlier David Cameron hit out at claims that Britain was circumventing the law to get information on people in the UK.  Speaking at an event in Essex the Prime Minister said that the UK’s intelligence agencies were properly scrutinised by the Intelligence and the Security Committee in the House of Commons.

He said: “I’m satisfied that we have intelligence agencies that do a fantastic job to keep us safe and operate within the law.”

The row follows revelations that American intelligence agencies have been secretly carrying out mass population surveillance – gathering data by monitoring sites like Facebook and Google.

Former CIA technical assistant Edward Snowden was identified by the Guardian newspaper as a whistleblower after he leaked information about US surveillance through the Prism spy programme. Concerns were raised that British agencies have been getting access to that data since 2010.

William Hague, who oversees the intelligence agencies, defended the UK’s methods in his parliamentary statement.

He said: “We should never forget that threats are launched at us secretly, new weapons systems and tactics are developed secretly and countries or terrorist groups that plan attacks or operations against us do so in secrecy.  So the methods we use to combat these threats must be secret just as they must always be lawful.”

Claims that the UK government are actively seeking to access the communications of its own citizens comes in the same week as independent MSP Margo MacDonald publicly called on MI5 not to interfere in the independence referendum.

Ms MacDonald, who left the SNP in 2003, wrote to the Head of MI5 seeking assurances that they would not employ ‘dirty tricks’ similar to those employed by UK security services in the seventies.

MacDonald wrote: “I will be obliged if you can give me an assurance that UK Security Services will not be used in any respect in the lead-up to the Scottish referendum on sovereignty, unless, of course, the Scottish police have sufficient evidence to justify normal responses to potentially overtly criminal acts.

“I do understand that the Security Services are vital to all the countries and regions of the British Isles and the potential for law-breaking may be heightened during the forthcoming campaign.

“As action on the Security Services’ part is calculated to keep communities safe and aid cohesion, I would welcome an assurance from you that this will continue, and that no other consideration will inform your Department’s work.”

The letter was prompted by an admission by former Labour chancellor Denis Healey that Labour had underplayed the value of North Sea oil in the late 70s in order to stem support for the SNP.

Official records released in 2007 confirmed that MI5 infiltrated the SNP in the 1950s.  In 2009, BBC Alba documentary Diomhair (Gaelic for ‘secret’) detailed how in the 1970s, MI5 and Special Branch sought to destabilise and discredit the SNP.

Former Foreign Secretary Anthony Crosland, who died in 1977, admitted in his posthumously published diaries that UK Treasury officials plotted to plant false stories in order to weaken growing Scottish demands for Home Rule by using sympathetic journalists.

Perhaps the greatest enduring mystery involving the SNP and the British Security Services was the unexplained death in 1985 of the senior SNP activist and prominent Scottish lawyer Willie McRae, who died after being shot in the head on an isolated spot on the A87.

It subsequently emerged that McRae, who was a well-known anti-nuclear campaigner, was being monitored by MI5 and was regularly tailed by the security services.  No inquiry was ever held into McRae’s death and his post-mortem notes are covered by the Official Secrets Act to this day.