Top secret: The answer to whether we're being spied on

William Hague William Hague was unable to provide clear answers on Prism

"I will take great care to say nothing..." the foreign secretary said at one stage during his statement about the questions raised by the revelation of the Prism programme for monitoring email and social media traffic.

At one stage during his Commons statement I feared that William Hague might live up to his words.

He meant that he would say nothing which might aid terrorists to know how the security services go about their business. Plots against us are made in secret, he said, so they need to be combatted secretly.

However, it was clear that he intended to say nothing at all about Prism - including even using its name. Nor did he intend to spell out in ways which any member of the public could understand when their emails or other social media traffic could be monitored.


Instead, Mr Hague made a number of general points again and again:

Firstly, that Britain should be proud of the security services which had protected us from numerous plots.

Secondly, that we had "one of the strongest system of checks and balances anywhere in the world", which involved ministers signing warrants before intercepts can take place, independent oversight of their decisions by the Intelligence Services Commissioner, and parliamentary accountability via the all party Intelligence and Security Committee, chaired by Sir Malcolm Rifkind. The ISC was, he said, the proper place to ask more detailed questions.

Thirdly, our current laws do not allow for "indiscriminate trawling" of data but only allow for "necessary, proportionate, targeted" searches.

Fourthly, the suggestion that GCHQ had sought to bypass the law by using intelligence gathered abroad was "baseless".

The clear hint was that ministers had approved the use of any intelligence gathered by the American National security Agency's Prism programme.

There was also a hint that the period leading up to the Olympics had been a time when such co-operation had been significant.

However, Mr Hague dodged shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander's invitation to confirm that all such data was approved by ministerial warrants.

I can't give an answer as categorical as he would like, the foreign secretary said, but it would be wrong to say this would be done without ministerial oversight. We are left to wonder what that really means.

Most of the House of Commons seemed reassured. Former Labour foreign and home secretaries backed the security services and the government. Many MPs wanted to know if the security services might not need more powers, rather than fewer.

However, if you were hoping for clear or detailed answers, you did not get them.

They are, it seems, well, secret.

Nick Robinson Article written by Nick Robinson Nick Robinson Political editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    Of course GCHQ hasn't done anything illegal, the arrangement makes it so they don't have to spy on us.

    A question I'd like to put to Mr Hague however is, does the government do everything humanly possible to prevent other nations from spying on UK citizens, including that done by 'allied' nations.

    The EU have no grounds for complain either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    152 "Gee, inactive thread or what. Looks like people aren`t too bothered about the balance between national security and civil liberties."

    They are, but that topic was done to death yesterday, over 1400 posts on HYS following Edward Snowdon`s revelations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.


    I remember when I was a junior tax inspector sitting in on an interview held by a senior inspector who had reduced a woman to tears as she faced the loss of her house through a silly error in a return. She was crying and sobbing, hysterical! And the senior inspector was doing nothing. In the end I leant forward and said to her "would you shut up?! I'm trying to do the crossword".

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    The snooper's charter seems blocked in parliament just now lacking majority support. Is parliament out of step with the country on this. If one may judge by this HYS, which is a big if, then the British public appears relatively sanguine about the whole thing.
    Perhaps there is nothing to worry about and we should just allow the authorities to sift away.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    sagamix @152
    "people aren't too bothered"
    We never ask for information, other than lawfully. What they send us - in response to our lawful requests - is always used lawfully. We agree that to mention - and offer reassurance - on the use of any information received other than by request, would be to risk undue complication of public imaginings. Our real worry, reassurance of our own Edward Snowdens


Comments 5 of 166


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