Friday 24 January 2020

David Cameron wants talks with US over spy storm

David Cameron
David Cameron

Geoff Meade and Gavin Cordon

British Prime Minister David Cameron has backed calls by France and Germany for talks with the United States to resolve the increasingly bitter dispute over spying on its allies by America's National Security Agency.

The Prime Minister said he welcomed the statement issued by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande at the European Union summit in Brussels calling for talks by the end of the year.

"The leaders of the European Union issued a good and sensible statement last night about this matter and I agree with that statement," he said.

He refused, however, to comment on any involvement by Britain's GCHQ spy agency in the surveillance of EU countries, saying only that it operated within a proper legal framework.

"I am satisfied that our intelligence agencies are properly governed, properly run, act under law and are subject to parliamentary scrutiny," he said.

He did indicate however that - unlike Mrs Merkel who has challenged President Barack Obama over claims the NSA tapped her mobile phone - he had not been targeted by the Americans in that way.

"I think I can point you towards a statement made by the White House about this issue which might give you some reassurance," he said.

A spokesman for the National Security Council has said it did not monitor Mr Cameron's communications and had not done so in the past.

Mr Cameron also condemned the leaks by the former US intelligence operative Edward Snowden, which he said had made it "a lot more difficult to keep our countries and our peoples safe".

The Prime Minister launched a blistering attack on Mr Snowden and the newspapers reporting his leaks.

The Guardian has published a series of stories based on the information contained in the Snowden files, including disclosures about GCHQ's Tempora internet surveillance system.

Mr Cameron, asked whether the Tempora system had been used to monitor Italian communications, strongly defended the security services and claimed those exposing their techniques were "helping our enemies".

He said: "Let me say this about what Mr Snowden has effectively done, and what some newspapers are assisting him in doing: that is going to make it a lot more difficult to keep our countries and our peoples safe.

"We do have to take a cold, hard look at this. As we stand today there are lots of people in the world who want to do us harm, who want to blow up our families, who want to maim people in our countries. That is the fact. It's not a pleasant fact but it's true.

"We see it with what happened recently in Kenya, we see it with what happened to, whether it was Italians or British people, in Amenas in Algeria. We have seen appalling attacks on British soil, we have seen appalling attacks through Europe.

"That is the threat that we face and so we have a choice: do we maintain properly funded, properly governed intelligence and security services that can gather intelligence on these people using all of the modern techniques to make sure that we can try and get ahead of them and stop them? Or do we stop doing that?

"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.

"That is not going to make our world safer, it's going to make our world more dangerous. 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.

"That is really important, not just for Britain but the information that we gather that we then share with other countries in Europe has helped those countries in Europe too.

"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."

The Prime Minister paid tribute to the UK's spies, saying it was important to remember the work they did without the acknowledgement enjoyed by other public servants.

He said: "At a time when everyone is discussing this issues, let's remember that the people who do this work, that helps to keep us safe, they are people we can never properly thank, we can never properly identify.

"We can't have medal parades and ceremonies for the very brave things that they do so it is worth saying every now and again, on a public platform, these are some of the most talented and bright and hard-working and dedicated officials in our country.

"They love our country, they work for our country and we should thank them rather than try to make their job more difficult."

The European Council has been overshadowed by the spying dispute, with both chancellor Merkel and president Hollande demanding change in the US approach.

Mr Hollande said: "What is at stake is preserving our relations with the United States. 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.

"We will put all efforts into forging a joint understanding by the end of the year for the co-operation of the (intelligence) agencies between Germany and the US and France and the US, to create a framework for the co-operation."

Britain and the US - along with 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.

The Prime Minister said: "I was very struck by my colleagues how they don't want some breach between the EU and the US, they want a good partnership, good trust and good relations.

"I think what Angela and Francois want to do is entirely sensible and other European countries are free to join in with that.

"Britain has a very strong, unique intelligence partnership in many ways with the United States, that's been very long standing. Part of that is the Five Eyes partnership, which was established many years ago, involving New Zealand, Canada, Australia as well.

"I think for us we are in the right situation but I understand what others want to do and support that, as I think will president Obama."

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