Britain’s top spy chiefs warned in an unprecedented TV appearance on Thursday that al-Qaeda and other enemies were “lapping up” intelligence leaks by Edward Snowden and using them to change the way they operate.
The heads of the foreign spy agency MI6, the domestic intelligence service MI5 and the electronic listening station GCHQ also used their appearance before a parliamentary committee to deny that Britons were under mass surveillance.
In a hearing held under tight security and broadcast with a two-minute time delay to prevent slipups, MI6 boss John Sawers said Snowden’s revelations of US and British spy programs were a gift to al-Qaeda and other terrorists.
“Our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee. Al-Qaeda is lapping it up,” Sawers told the Intelligence and Security Committee.
“The leaks from Snowden have been very damaging, they put our operations at risk,” he said.
GCHQ boss Iain Lobban said his service had picked up “near daily discussion” among extremist groups in the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere about lessons to be learned from the Snowden files.
“We have actually seen chat around specific terrorist groups, including closer to home, discussing how to avoid what they now perceive to be vulnerable communications methods,” Lobban said.
Snowden, a former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who has been granted temporary asylum in Russia, has revealed massive US electronic surveillance programs, sending shock waves around the world.
The leaks have strained Washington’s ties with its allies over suggestions that it has eavesdropped on dozens of world leaders, including by tapping the mobile phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Meanwhile, it was revealed that Snowden used login credentials and passwords provided unwittingly by colleagues at a spy base in Hawaii to access some of the classified material he has leaked to the media, sources said.
A handful of agency employees who gave their login details to Snowden were identified, questioned and removed from their assignments, a source close to several US government investigations into the damage caused by the leaks said.
Snowden may have persuaded between 20 and 25 fellow workers at the NSA regional operations center in Hawaii to give him their logins and passwords by telling them they were needed for him to do his job as a computer systems administrator, a second source said.
The revelation is the latest to indicate that inadequate security measures at the NSA played a significant role in the worst breach of classified data in the super-secret eavesdropping agency’s 61-year history.
Snowden worked at the Hawaii site for about a month in spring, during which time he got access to and downloaded tens of thousands of secret NSA documents.