Newly published Snowden leaks show that the UK spy agency GCHQ took extraordinary measures to hide the eager cooperativeness of the country's phone companies, who were apparently delighted to help it spy on the nation and its allies; further, the leak details the GCHQ's internal conviction that their spying violated European law, and thus had to be kept a secret.
The agency fought domestic attempts to make wiretapping materials admissible as evidence lest the public discover the extent of its illegal spying programme, and it sought out sympathetic public figures to discredit opponents and celebrate its spying, including the LibDem peer Lord Carlile. Carlile has been slamming the Guardian for its coverage of the Snowden leaks — apparently acting as a de facto PR agent for the nation's criminal spy-class.
GCHQ's submission goes on to set out why its relationships with telecoms companies go further than what can be legally compelled under current law. It says that in the internet era, companies wishing to avoid being legally mandated to assist UK intelligence agencies would often be able to do so "at little cost or risk to their operations" by moving "some or all" of their communications services overseas.
As a result, "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 submission to ministers does not set out which overseas firms have entered into voluntary relationships with the UK, or even in which countries they operate, though documents detailing the Tempora programme made it clear the UK's interception capabilities relied on taps located both on UK soil and overseas.
There is no indication as to whether the governments of the countries in which deals with companies have been struck would be aware of the GCHQ cable taps.
Evidence that telecoms firms and GCHQ are engaging in mass interception overseas could stoke an ongoing diplomatic row over surveillance ignited this week after the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, accused the NSA of monitoring her phone calls, and the subsequent revelation that the agency monitored communications of at least 35 other world leaders.
Leaked memos reveal GCHQ efforts to keep mass surveillance secret [James Ball/The Guardian]