LONDON Leaks of sensitive intelligence like those of fugitive U.S. analyst Edward Snowden put lives and national security at risk, potentially jeopardising vital work to protect the public, Britain's security minister said on Wednesday.
Revelations by Snowden, a former contractor with the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), published in Britain's Guardian newspaper last month, led to claims that British spies have been circumventing the law and have stirred concern among London's European allies.
In its reports, the Guardian said Britain's eavesdropping agency GCHQ had tapped fibre-optic cables carrying international phone and Internet traffic and had shared vast amounts of personal data with the NSA under a project codenamed "Tempora".
GCHQ also accessed data about Britons obtained by the NSA under its secret PRISM programme, the paper said.
"Disclosure of highly sensitive information can be damaging. It can certainly undermine our security, certainly it can put lives at risk," Security Minister James Brokenshire told Reuters at a security conference in London.
"It provides a partial view and it can undermine the very security and actions our intelligence and other agencies are engaged in to keep us all safe," he said, adding that he would not comment specifically on the leaks.
Snowden, 30, is believed to be still stranded in the transit area of a Moscow airport, where he has been trying since June 23 to find a country that will offer him refuge from prosecution in the United States on espionage charges.
Britain's most senior counter-terrorism official Charles Farr echoed Brokenshire's comments about national security.
"Ministers have said this damages our capabilities. Given that a significant part of what GCHQ does is about terrorism, you can draw your conclusions," he said at the same conference.
The Guardian's reports have angered some of Britain's European Union partners, especially Germany, whose Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger has said it would be a "catastrophe" if the "Tempora" claims proved true.
Asked if the disclosures would damage intelligence sharing in the future, Brokenshire said countries recognised they had to work together to combat threats. "I have every confidence that will continue to be the case," he said.
Brokenshire said balancing civil liberties and national security while allowing the spies to carry out vital covert work put the government in a "quandary", but he repeated assurances that the intelligence agencies worked within the law.
"This isn't about trying to read everybody's emails, trying to spy and pry into everyone's day to day activities," he said.
"We must always be focused on ensuring our agencies are able to conduct their activities at times in secret because the threats that we face are prepared in secret," he added.
Brokenshire is leading the Conservative-led coalition government's attempts to beef up the powers of police and spy agencies to access details of people's Internet use in what critics have denounced as a "snoopers' charter".
Law enforcement agencies say the measures are vital to fighting serious crime and terrorism, but the Liberal Democrats, junior partner in the coalition, are opposed, and lawmakers from all parties have said it would be too intrusive.
"There is a recognition a solution needs to be found," said Brokenshire, adding that the plans would need the confidence of parliament and the public. "We will take as long as it takes to get this right."
The issue of security has come back into sharp focus in Britain after the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in southeast London in what authorities said was the first terrorist attack in Britain since the London suicide bombings of July 2005.
Rigby's killing also led to calls for a clampdown on militant Islamist preachers such as Anjem Choudary and for the withdrawal of their state welfare benefits. A number of Choudary's followers have been convicted of terrorism offences.
Brokenshire said a task force was considering a range of measures, including withdrawing benefits from those like Choudary who newspapers say receives 25,000 pounds ($37,900) a year from the state.
"I think it's right we continue to ... look at what can be done about extremist preachers and certainly benefits, ... so we make sure those who seek to perpetrate a spiteful, vile message are challenged effectively and robustly," Brokenshire said.
"I can't confirm that proposals will be forthcoming, but clearly we look at a whole range of issues." ($1 = 0.6592 British pounds)
(Editing by Gareth Jones)