‘Press handling with talking heads’: Snowden files reveal enormous GCHQ efforts to escape legal challenge

The UK’s spy agency GCHQ was doing whatever it could to avoid igniting a “damaging public debate” and a subsequent possibility of a legal threat over its surveillance practices and cooperation with telecoms, new Snowden papers reveal.

The documents leaked to the Guardian by former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden illustrate how the Government Communication Headquarters feared the possibility of being challenged under the Human Rights Act if details of privacy invasions leaked.

The intelligence agency also attempted to keep the lengths to which telecommunications agencies had gone to concealed. It was found that they gone “well beyond” the legal requirements in aiding intelligence agencies in their procuring of data – not only in the UK but overseas too.

The memos show how GCHQ attempted to prevent intercepted communication to be used as evidence in UK criminal trials: something all three main political parties have been advocates of, but the intelligence community very much against.

The most recent was an attempt by the Labour government, whose proposal was obstructed in 2009 by GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 which, according to the documents, feared a potentially “damaging” public debate, “which might lead to legal challenges against the current regime.”

In May 2012, a further document illustrated the risks the British intelligence services would be susceptible to should their interceptions be made admissible. Documents seen by the Guardian demonstrate a sincere fear of “the damage to partner relationships if sensitive information were accidentally released in open court” and how the “scale of interception and retention required would be fairly likely to be challenged on Article 8 (Right to Privacy) grounds.”

The GCHQ also assisted the Home Office with waging the PR war over the “intercept as evidence” reform, by “lining up talking heads (such as Lord Carlisle [sic], Lord Stevens, Sir Stephen Lander, Sir Swinton Thomas)," according the leaked memo.

Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham (Reuters)

“We are working closely with HO [Home Office] on their plans for press handling when the final report [on intercept as evidence without classification] is published,” the document reads.

When it was revealed in earlier Snowden files that telecom companies help the government intercept personal data, telecoms claimed they were only complying with the law. However, a secret document prepared in 2009 by a joint working group of GCHQ, MI5 and MI6, cited by the Guardian, suggests more voluntary cooperation.

Since telecoms could easily move their operations out of jurisdiction to avoid legal problems, “it has been necessary to enter into agreements with both UK-based and offshore providers for them to afford the UK agencies access, with appropriate legal authorisation, to the communications they carry outside the UK," the document says.

Telecoms in their turn kept their cooperation with the UK government secret over the fears of “damage to their brands internationally,” the GCHQ memo said.

The leaked document did not specify which companies might have voluntarily joined the GCHQ’s Tempora surveillance project, under which the UK's spying agency intercepts and stores for 30 days huge volumes of data – like emails, social network posts, phone calls and much more, culled from international fiber-optic cables – which they openly share with their American partners.

Meanwhile, following a wave of revelations about the NSA spying not only on ordinary citizens but also on world leaders, the EU leadership issued a joint statement saying the partnership with America should be built on respect and trust.

France and Germany are planning to seek bilateral talks with the US “with the aim of finding before the end of the year an understanding on mutual relations,” while Brazil is pushing for the adoption of a UN General Resolution that promotes the right of privacy on the internet.