Britain’s electronic eavesdropping agency GCHQ did not bypass the law by using data from the secret US PRISM surveillance programme exposed by Edward Snowden, MPs said on Wednesday.
The British parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee said a minister had signed off on a warrant for all of the agency’s requests for information from intelligence services in the United States.
“It has been alleged that GCHQ circumvented UK law by using the NSA’s PRISM programme to access the content of private communications. From the evidence we have seen, we have concluded that this is unfounded,” the committee said in a report.
“We have reviewed the reports that GCHQ produced on the basis of intelligence sought from the US, and we are satisfied that they conformed with GCHQ’s statutory duties,” it added.
But the committee did recommend examining current laws on access to private communications to see if they were still “adequate”.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, whose ministry is in charge of GCHQ, welcomed the report.
“The Intelligence and Security Committee has today cleared GCHQ of the allegations of illegal activity made against it. The committee has concluded that these allegations are ‘unfounded’. I welcome these findings,” he said.
GCHQ, which stands for Government Communications Headquarters and is based in a huge doughnut-shaped building in Cheltenham, monitors communications worldwide for intelligence purposes.
Documents leaked by former US National Security Agency contractor Snowden were reported by the Guardian newspaper last month to show that GCHQ was using data harvested by PRISM.
It also reported that GCHQ spied on foreign delegates at the G20 meeting in London in 2009.
The spying allegations have caused tensions with Britain’s partners in the European Union after allegations that the bloc had also been targeted by the PRISM programme.
The British parliamentary intelligence committee said it had taken “detailed evidence” from GCHQ including scrutiny of its arrangements with foreign intelligence agencies.
GCHQ had provided lawmakers with lists of counter-terror operations for which it obtained intelligence from the United States, of British nationals who were monitored, of email addresses for which details were requested, and of warrants for targeted individuals, the committee said.
“In each case where GCHQ sought information from the US, a warrant for interception, signed by a minister, was already in place, in accordance with the legal safeguards..,” it said.
But the report did not directly address allegations in the Snowden files that the British-US relationship also worked the other way.
The Guardian reported last month that GCHQ was tapping cables that carry the world’s phone calls and Internet traffic and sharing it with the NSA.
Under the programme dubbed Tempora, GCHQ has started processing vast amounts of personal information from the cables which it can store for up to 30 days.
The Guardian said the documents it had seen showed that by last year, GCHQ was handling 600 million “telephone events” each day, had tapped more than 200 fibre-optic cables, and was able to process data from at least 46 of them at a time.
The EU expressed concern while Germany said the allegations about Britain’s activities were a “nightmare out of Hollywood”.
Britain is not the only US ally to come under scrutiny, however, with a newspaper reporting Wednesday that the German military had known for years about PRISM and that Berlin’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, had previously requested PRISM data.
Snowden, on the run from the US government, has been marooned at a Moscow airport since June 23.
He filed an application for temporary asylum in Russia on Tuesday and on Wednesday his lawyer said he did not rule out applying for Russian citizenship.