David Cameron has mounted an impassioned defence of the intelligence agencies amid continuing diplomatic tensions over spying by the United States on its European allies.
The Prime Minister, attending an EU summit in Brussels, backed calls by German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president François Hollande for talks with Washington to resolve the dispute over the activities of America’s National Security Agency (NSA).
But he also issued a reminder that intelligence gathered by Britain’s GCHQ spy agency – which has also been caught up in the allegations – had helped protect citizens across Europe from terrorist attacks. He bitterly denounced leaks by former US intelligence operative Edward Snowden – and “what some newspapers are assisting him in doing” – warning that they were making it more difficult to keep people safe.
In the latest disclosures, the Guardian revealed details of an NSA memorandum from 2006 showing the agency had monitored the calls of at least 35 world leaders, using numbers obtained by officials in other US government departments.
Mrs Merkel has already confronted president Barack Obama over claims the NSA tapped her mobile phone.
At his end of summit press conference, Mr Cameron refused to be drawn on whether GCHQ was spying on EU allies through its Tempora programme of internet surveillance, saying only that the agency operated within a proper legal framework.
He did, however, emphasise that Britain shared its intelligence extensively with EU partners, and he echoed recent comments by MI5 director-general Andrew Parker condemning the way its efforts were being jeopardised by leaks.
“The point is, what Snowden is doing and, to an extent, what the newspapers are doing in helping him do what he is doing, is frankly signalling to people who mean to do us harm how to evade and avoid intelligence and surveillance and other techniques,” he said.
“The first priority of a prime minister is to help try and keep your country safe. That means not having some lah-di-dah, airy-fairy view about what this all means; it’s understanding intelligence and security services do an important job.
“Yes they need to be governed under law, yes they must be scrutinised by parliament, but we need those people. They are brave people who help to keep us safe and I’ve lost count of the plots that I have seen and the problems that I have seen being avoided by the work they do.
“So I make no apology for that, that we have intelligence services, we will maintain intelligence services and I will back the work that they do. I will criticise, though, those that make public some of the techniques that they use because that is helping our enemies. Simple.”
Mr Cameron indicated that – unlike Mrs Merkel – he had not been targeted by the NSA.
Britain, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are members of the so-called “Five Eyes” group, who share signals intelligence and are supposed not to spy on each other.
Earlier, Mrs Merkel and Mr Hollande called for talks with the US administration to take place before the end of the year.
The French president said: “What is at stake is preserving our relations with the US. They should not be changed because of what has happened. But trust has to be restored and reinforced.”
Mrs Merkel spoke of her upset at the alleged phone monitoring, saying: “It’s become clear that for the future, something must change – and significantly.”