LONDON Britain should create a new body to oversee its intelligence agencies to reassure the public after revelations from ex-U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, the former head of the British foreign intelligence service said on Monday.
Documents leaked by Snowden exposed the vast scale of surveillance carried out by Britain's intelligence agencies and their close collaboration with America's National Security Agency, sparking a public debate about how they operate.
Richard Dearlove, head of Britain's MI6 spy agency between 1999 and 2004, said that meant the public now needed greater assurances that espionage powers were not being abused.
"Snowden has damaged the West's capability with his revelations," Dearlove told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference in London. "But I also think what he has done is increase the knowledge and understanding of what the government's capabilities are in these areas.
"There is probably a need to create some sort of committee which is independently appointed - isn't from the judiciary, isn't made up of politicians - that acts as a guarantor in terms of assuring the public that these powers are not being abused."
In the United States, President Barack Obama has set out a series of reforms to the country's intelligence agencies in response to a public outcry triggered by Snowden's revelations.
Civil liberties groups, lawmakers and parts of the British media have seized upon the Snowden leaks, which included details about the interception and storage of millions of webcam images, to argue for greater oversight of intelligence agencies' work.
RESISTANCE TO MORE TRANSPARENCY
Dearlove, who headed the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) during the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York, said that while he was confident intelligence operations had not been illegal, he still felt an independent overseer should be set up to provide greater scrutiny and public reassurance.
Britain's current spy chiefs have resisted calls for greater scrutiny and transparency, arguing the Snowden leaks put British operations at risk. A senior security official said last month that terrorists had changed their methods of communication because of the leaks.
In Britain, oversight of the intelligence services rests with a parliamentary committee and three other judicial and expert offices. The chairman of the parliamentary committee, Malcolm Rifkind, recently defended his role and praised the work of Britain's spy agencies, saying they had no desire to be "all-seeing" or "all-hearing".
However, last week lawmakers criticized the current structure as outdated and lacking credibility.
Dearlove said an independent body "representative of a multiplicity of views from across society" would improve the system. "Credibility is a key issue if it's appointed, but I think if you have a broad enough cross section of people drawn from different sectors of society it could add reassurance."
Snowden fled the United States last year after downloading some 1.7 million computerized NSA files showing spying on the emails, phone calls and Internet use of hundreds of millions of people including leaders of U.S. allies. He leaked documents to selected media, and was granted temporary asylum in Russia.
(Editing by Andrew Osborn and Mark Heinrich)