The heads of the three British spy agencies, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ have appeared before a televised parliamentary committee for the first time.

They criticised the publication of details of their operations in newspapers, saying they helped terrorist organisations - an accusation rejected by the Guardian newspaper.

Parliament’s intelligence and security committee was reformed earlier this year. An attempt to counter criticism it did not have sufficient oversight of the intelligence services.

The hearing was an attempt to show it could call the heads of the intelligence services to account.Before the committee came the director general of MI5, Andrew Parker, his Mi6 counterpart Sir John Sawers and the director of GCHQ Sir Iain Lobban.

Al-Qaeda "lapping it up"

The agency chiefs took the opportunity to outline how they though revelations about their spying activities leaked by Edward Snowden in the Guardian and New York Times newspapers have hurt their counter-terrorism operations.

Sir John Sawers, from MI6 said it was clear damage had been done to efforts to combat terrorism: "The leaks from Snowden have been very damaging. They have put our operations at risk. It is clear that our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee, al-Qeida is lapping it up and national security has suffered as a consequence."

Professor Anthony Glees, Director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham says the testimony today means the government has no choice but to prevent newspapers from publishing such sensitive information again.

Committee accused of pusillanimity

The Security correspondent of the Guardian Richard Norton-Taylor, rejects that view.

He said: "The committee failed to bring the security chiefs to account and was too willing to let them hide under the cloak of operational secrecy."

Richard Norton-Taylor says he thinks the committee have failed to understand how communications have changed in recent years – and how the intelligence agencies use it.

But if there remain many questions about transparency in the intelligence services, perhaps this at least a step forward in some ways – with the public now able at least to put faces to the names leading the country security services.

Scrutiny of parliament

VoR's Brendan Cole spoke to Carina O'Reilly, lecturer in International Relations at Anglia Ruskin University. 

 

MI5, MI6 and GCHQ chiefs called to account