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The heads of Britain’s spy services agreed Thursday that intelligence leaked by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden had a significantly detrimental effect on their operations throughout the globe.REUTERS TV

Britain's spy agencies usually shun the limelight and operate in the secret world of espionage where the tricks of their trade are rarely publicized. That changed for 90 minutes on Thursday as the heads of the country's three spy services emerged for the first time to explain what they do and shoot back at critics.

The directors of MI5, the domestic spy service; MI6, the foreign branch; and GCHQ, the agency responsible for electronic eavesdropping, told a parliamentary committee that they operate within the law and that the leaks by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden have seriously damaged global security. Documents released to the media by Mr. Snowden, who is wanted by the United States and now lives in Russia, have alleged spy agencies intercepted millions of private phone calls and even tapped into the cellphone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a strong U.S. ally.

"The leaks from Snowden have been very damaging. They put our operations at risk," said Sir John Sawers, director general of MI6. "It's clear that our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee. Al-Qaeda is lapping it up."

When pressed by committee chairman Sir Malcolm Rifkind to provide details, Sir John said he could not do so in public.

Sir Iain Lobban, director of Government Communications Headquarters – commonly known by its acronym, GCHQ – said his agency has intelligence showing that terrorist groups have changed tactics because of Mr. Snowden's leaks. "We have actually seen chats … discussing how to avoid what they now perceive to be vulnerable communications methods or how to select communication which they now perceive not be exploitable," he told the committee. "It is a direct consequence. The cumulative effect of the media coverage, the global media coverage, will make the job that we have far, far harder for years to come."

He also said GCHQ doesn't monitor private phone calls or e-mails and only uses legal means to go after suspects.

Sir John was coy when asked about allegations Britain has spied on leaders of friendly nations. "Everything we do is in response to priorities laid down by government and is authorized by government," he said.

When asked about allegations the services have participated in, or condoned, torture over the years, Sir John acknowledged that intelligence agencies were not well prepared for the challenge of terrorism in 2001 when the 9/11 attacks occurred in the United States. He said agents lacked proper training and resources, but that has changed and torture is not condoned. "There is no way that our members of staff could be drawn into situations at this stage where there is any doubt about what they should be doing," he said.

Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, also denied his agents ever participate in torture. "We do not participate, incite, encourage or condone mistreatment or torture and that is absolute," he said.

All three offered a bleak outlook for terrorism around the world, saying the threats are growing and that industrial espionage is a particular concern. "More British citizens have been killed overseas in 2013 than in the previous seven years combined," said Sir John. "There is no doubt at all that the threat is rising."

Mr. Parker said his agency had thwarted 34 domestic terrorism plots since 2005, when terrorists set off bombs in the London underground, killing 52 people. He also launched into a lengthy defence of MI5, saying its "raison d'être" was to "protect the sort of country we live in." And he added that like everyone else, his agents "don't want to live in a surveillance society or a North Korea. They want to live in a country like this and our job is to keep it that way."