Debate rages about damage to security by whistleblower
REVELATIONS from top-secret documents about GCHQ by the American whistleblower Edward Snowden are a "catastrophic loss" to British intelligence.
Either that, or they are the legitimate raising of concerns about the power of the security apparatus.
The first view was expressed by Sir David Omand, who was director of the Cheltenham-based intelligence organisation in the 1990s and then homeland security adviser to Downing Street.
He said of the 58,000 British security documents taken by Snowden: "The assumption the experts are working on is that all that information, or almost all of it, will now be in the hands of Moscow and Beijing.
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"It's the most catastrophic loss to British intelligence ever – much worse than Burgess and Maclean in the 1950s."
He added: "You have to distinguish between the original whistleblowing intent to get a debate going, which is a responsible thing to do, and the stealing of 58,000 top-secret British documents – and who knows how many American documents – which is seriously, seriously damaging."
But the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg appeared to concede the revelations did raise concerns about the power of surveillance.
He said on an LBC radio programme: "I think it is right to ask whether there is anything more we can do to make sure the public feel accountability is working in this area properly.
"There is a totally legitimate debate about the power of these technologies, about how you get the balance right, how you do make sure these technologies are used in an accountable and proportionate way."
But Mr Clegg also criticised the way the documents had been acquired and leaked.
He said: "I don't think just giving technical secrets to those who wish to do us harm serves any purpose."
Prime Minister David Cameron also criticised the leaking of the documents.
He said: "When you get newspapers who get hold of vast amounts of information, that is effectively stolen information, and they think it's okay to reveal this. I think they have to think about their responsibilities and are they helping to keep our country safe?"
He added: "I am satisfied the work these agencies do is not only vital but it is properly overseen. That is what this debate needs to be about.
"If people want to suggest improvements about how they are governed and looked after, I am happy to listen to those.
Edward Snowden was a civilian contractor employed by GCHQ's American counterpart, NSA, at one of its bases in Hawaii.
After taking the thousands of secret and top-secret British and American documents he fled to Hong Kong in the summer and then to Russia, where he now has temporary asylum and is staying in an undisclosed location.
It is reported MI5 believes that it has evidence that leaks of the documents has already harmed security operations.