US spymasters pay £100m to access British intelligence

POLITICIANS have expressed concern at revelations that the US government has paid at least £100 million to the UK spy agency GCHQ to get access to British intelligence-gathering programmes.

GCHQ gathers information on behalf of the government. Picture: PA

Reports published yesterday suggested the payments were made by America’s equivalent of GCHQ, the National Security Agency (NSA), over the past three years.

Documents obtained by the Guardian newspaper indicated the NSA expected a return on their money, raising concerns over Washington’s relationship with Britain’s intelligence agency.

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A GCHQ strategy briefing said that “GCHQ must pull its weight and must be seen to pull its weight”.

The payments came to light in GCHQ’s annual “investment portfolios”. The papers showed that NSA paid the Cheltenham-based eavesdropping agency £22.9m in 2009.

The next year, NSA handed over £39.9m, which included £4m to support GCHQ’s work for Nato forces in Afghanistan, and £17.2m for the agency’s “Mastering the Internet” project which gathers online information.

NSA also paid £15.5m towards redeveloping a GCHQ site in Cornwall. In 2011-12, NSA paid another £34.7m to GCHQ, according to the documents.

The information was included in the latest papers to emerge from the cache of documents leaked by the American whistle-blower Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor, who disclosed them in protest at intelligence-gathering activities.

Yesterday, shadow home secretary Douglas Alexander said: “The vital work of the intelligence agencies requires effective and thorough oversight by the intelligence and security committee on behalf of parliament and by ministers, and, in the case of GCHQ, by the Foreign Secretary.

“The latest reports only underline the importance of the Foreign Secretary and the intelligence and security committee being able to assure the public that the legal framework within which our intelligence agencies operate is both being adhered to and is fit for purpose.”

The extent of the online intelligence-gathering undertaken by the US and UK spy agencies has triggered alarm from critics of the organisations.

The latest batch of documents revealed that GCHQ is investing more money into collecting information from mobile phones and apps, and that the amount of personal data available from internet and mobile use has increased by 7,000 per cent in the past five years.

UK ministers have denied that GCHQ is doing the NSA’s “dirty work”, but the latest documents described Britain’s surveillance laws and regulatory regime as a “selling point” for the Americans.

Sandra White, the SNP MSP, said: “People are understandably concerned at the reports of vast quantities of their personal data being accessed in this way. People have a right to know what safeguards are in place.”

And a Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The justice secretary has written to William Hague to seek assurances that UK legislation is fully upheld in cases of interception undertaken by, or on behalf of, GCHQ in Scotland.”