Britain’s electronic surveillance agency, Government Communications Headquarters, has long presented its collaboration with the National Security Agency’s massive electronic spying efforts as proportionate, carefully monitored, and well within the bounds of privacy laws. But according to a top-secret document in the archive of material provided to The Intercept by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, GCHQ secretly coveted the NSA’s vast troves of private communications and sought “unsupervised access” to its data as recently as last year – essentially begging to feast at the NSA’s table while insisting that it only nibbles on the occasional crumb.
The document, dated April 2013, reveals that GCHQ requested broad new authority to tap into data collected under a law that authorizes a variety of controversial NSA surveillance initiatives, including the PRISM program.
Section 702 of FISA grants the NSA wide latitude to collect the email and phone communications of “persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States.” It authorizes PRISM and several other programs – with codenames such as FAIRVIEW, STORMBREW, BLARNEY, and OAKSTAR– that covertly mine communications directly from phone lines and internet cables.
GCHQ was previously reported to have had some level of access to PRISM since at least June 2010, generating 197 intelligence reports from the data in 2012. However, the British agency appears to have been unsatisfied with limits placed on its use of the system.
The arrangement GCHQ proposed would also have provided the British agency with greater access to millions of international phone calls and emails that the NSA siphons directly from phone networks and the internet.
Last June, in the wake of the Guardian‘s PRISM disclosures, British Foreign Secretary William Hague issued a lengthy statement declaring that “the arrangements for oversight and the general framework for exchanging information with the United States are the same as under previous governments.” Warrants to intercept the communications of any individual in the United Kingdom, the statement read, must be personally signed by a cabinet secretary.
Likewise, the British Intelligence and Security Committee reported in July that, after reviewing “GCHQ’s access to the content of communications, the legal framework which governs that access, and the arrangements GCHQ has with its overseas counterparts for sharing such information,” the spy agency’s collaboration with the NSA was within the bounds of British law.
But the broader access secretly sought by GCHQ only months earlier appears to have been unprecedented – and would have placed fewer restrictions on how the NSA’s surveillance data is obtained and handled by British spies.
Earlier this month, a report by the U.K. government’s communications interception commissioner deemed GCHQ’s arrangements with the NSA to have been within the law and said that the agency was not engaged in “indiscriminate random mass intrusion.”
But the newly revealed documents raise questions about the full extent of the clandestine cooperation – key details about which appear to have been withheld from lawmakers.
In response to the revelation, British member of Parliament Julian Huppert has accused government officials of issuing statements intended to “deliberately mislead” about GCHQ’s surveillance programs and called for an overhaul of the current system of oversight.
Huppert served on a committee that reviewed – and recommended against – a push from the British government for more powers to access private data before the Snowden materials became public last year.
At no point during that process, Huppert says, did GCHQ disclose the extent of its access to PRISM and other then-secret NSA programs. Nor did it indicate that it was seeking wider access to NSA data – even during closed sessions held to allow security officials to discuss sensitive information. Huppert says these facts were relevant to the review and could have had a bearing on its outcome.
“It is now obvious that they were trying to deliberately mislead the committee,” Huppert told The Intercept. “They very clearly did not give us all the information that we needed.”
Decrying the process as a “good example of how governments should not behave,” the Liberal Democrat parliamentarian is calling for significant reform of the U.K.’s current surveillance regime.
“I want to see much greater clarity on how we have oversight, because it is currently not fit for purpose,” he says. “We need much more transparency about what is happening. And we need to revise our laws, because our laws clearly have too many loopholes in them.”
Eric King, head of research at London-based human rights group Privacy International, said that the latest disclosure raised “serious concerns” about whether GCHQ has pushed for the ability to sift through data collected by the NSA in a bid to circumvent British laws restricting the scope of its surveillance.
“GCHQ’s continued insistence that it is following the law becomes less credible with every revelation,” King told The Intercept, adding that he believed the agency was “stretching its legal authorities with help from international partners.”
The NSA declined to answer a series of questions from The Intercept about its surveillance cooperation with GCHQ or comment on whether the arrangement has involved sharing information on Americans’ communications.