By Richard Norton-Taylor
Guardian Defence & Security Blog – 11 November 2013
Information which if leaked could endanger lives was shared, we are told, with some 850,000 individuals, one of whom was Edward Snowden, the US National Security Agency contractor. They all knew what GCHQ and its close partner, the NSA, have been up to. British cabinet ministers did not. Nor did members of Britain's National Security Council.
One British source familiar with the matter has described this vast distribution of highly classified information as "very disturbing" and "quite dumb". Republican senator and former presidential candidate John McCain asked in an interview with the German news magazine, Der Spiegel:
"Why did Edward Snowden have that information? ... And what are we doing as far as screening people who have access to this information? It's outrageous, and someone ought to be held accountable."
McCain was asked who should be held accountable. He replied:
"The head of the NSA, the president of the United States, the congressional intelligence committees, all of these contractors we pay that were responsible for performing the background checks. There should be a wholesale housecleaning".
He was then asked if Alexander should resign.
"Of course, they should resign or be fired. We no longer hold anybody accountable in Washington,"
Der Spiegel quoted McCain as saying. (McCain's office said later: "Senator McCain believes that there needs to be accountability for the Snowden leaks, but he is not calling for the resignation of General Alexander, who is retiring soon".)
Conservative MP Julian Lewis raised the issue, rather more delicately, during last week's public session of the UK parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC).
"If a junior clerk with a memory stick can copy and publish, on the internet, tens of thousands of highly classified documents, what measures can be put in place to try to prevent such huge breaches of security in the future?"
asked Lewis. To which Andrew Parker, the head of the British domestic security service, MI5, replied:
"In the UK – and I can't comment on US arrangements – we have extremely stringent security arrangements".
Despite all the apparent grief sloppy US controls have caused them, the heads of Britain's security and intelligence agencies could not bring it upon themselves to criticise their big brother, not in public at least. When ISC chairman, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, asked whether his committee could assume that the British spook chiefs were discussing with their American counterparts
"about the hundreds of thousands of people who appear to have access to your information",
Sir John Sawers, the head of the UK Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, simply replied:
"All three of us are involved in those discussions, Chairman",
referring to himself, Parker, and GCHQ director, Sir Iain Lobban.
It is not the first time, of course, so much classified information has been distributed so far and wide.The junior US intelligence analyst, Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, convicted of leaking official information had access to 250,000 US diplomatic cables, and 500,000 US army reports, then passed to Wikileaks. Such wide distribution of centrally-collated data appeared to be a kneejerk bureaucratic response to the failure of US security and intelligence agencies to share information which if joined up, should have alerted them to the 9/11 al-Qaida attacks on the US.
Ironically, such a broad interpretation of the 'need to know' principle, beloved of all bureaucracies, has meant that all of us without such an official 'need to know' now know what we – and ministers and MPs – really did need to know about the capabilities of GCHQ and the NSA.
Meanwhile, the Commons Table Office - which vets questions tabled by MPs has blocked parliamentary questions put by Labour member Fabian Hamilton, even about just how many US personnel work at Menwith Hill, in North Yorkshire. The NSA's largest eavesdropping centre in Europe there is officially designated a British base, given the misleading name of 'RAF Menwith Hill'.