The publication of documents leaked to the international media by whistleblower Edward Snowden caused enormous damage to the country’s security by alerting adversaries to its cyber capabilities, the Intelligence and Security Committee appointed by Parliament was told on Thursday. The Committee headed by Sir Malcolm Rifkind grilled chiefs of the three major intelligence services of the U.K. on the functioning of their agencies and on allegations of a lack of transparency in their work. The proceedings were shown on television with a two minute transmission delay.

The intelligence chiefs who appeared were M15’s Andrew Parker, GCHQ’s Sir Iain Lobban, and MI6’s Sir John Sawers. It is reported that this is the first public appearance by the GCHQ chief.

“Setback for security”

Pressed by the head of the committee for an answer on whether the media revelations on the data surveillance activities of the GCHQ constituted a “gift to terrorists” (as described by Andrew Parker, the head of MI5 in a recent talk), Sir Lobban said the disclosures were a setback for the country’s security. When asked for specific examples, he said that he could not give these in a public forum but would brief the committee in a closed session.

Sir Lobban, however, said that in the five months and as a “direct consequence” of the disclosures, the GCHQ had monitored “daily discussions” amongst groups based in the Middle East, Afghanistan and South Asia on new communication practices to move to as a result of the information gleaned.

“The cumulative effect of the global media coverage makes out task harder,” said Sir Lobban. “Our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee and the al-Qaeda is lapping it up,” said Sir Sawers.

Grilled by members of the Committee on the lack of transparency of the British intelligence agencies, and their surveillance of private digital data — issues that have been the subject of public debate in the U.K.— Mr. Parker said secrecy was not sinister, and served the purpose of operational functioning. The agencies were working within the framework of the law under an oversight mechanism, he added.

The committee heard that 34 terrorist plots had been foiled since the London bombings of July 2005. One or two of these were major threats aimed at mass casualties.

In the last five years, there has been a diversification in the terrorist threat with the emergence of al-Qaeda affiliates in East Africa, Yemen, Syria, and the “overseas threat is rising,” the Committee was informed. Britons in the “low hundreds” were going to Syria attracted by the Jehadi cause and returning. “We are trying to break the links between potential terrorists here with the al-Qaeda network,” Mr. Parker said.

The MI5 chief disclosed that his agency had arrested 11 persons earlier this year who were planning an attack greater than the London bombings in 2005.

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