The Guardian performed a considerable public service after making the "entirely correct and right" and "courageous" decision to publish details from secret NSA files leaked by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden, Vince Cable has said.
The business secretary, who reserved judgment on Snowden's decision to leak the files, confirmed that Nick Clegg was setting in train a review of the oversight of Britain's intelligence agencies.
In an interview on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, Cable said that "arguably" Britain did not have proper oversight of the domestic intelligence service MI5, overseas agency MI6 and eavesdropping centre GCHQ.
Cable confirmed a report in the Guardian that the deputy prime minister's aides are to start conversations in Whitehall about improving the legal oversight of the intelligence agencies in light of Snowden's revelations. These suggest that powerful new technologies appear to have outstripped the current system of legislative and political oversight.
The business secretary said: "I think the Guardian has done a very considerable public service The conclusion which Nick Clegg came to, and set out this morning, is that we do need to have proper political oversight of the intelligence services and arguably we haven't until now. What they [the Guardian] did was, as journalists, entirely correct and right. Mr Snowden is a different kettle of fish."
Cable later elaborated on his comments in an interview with BBC News. He said: "I think we've got to separate out the two things. There's the Guardian acting as a newspaper, bringing things to public attention, things that shouldn't have happened that did happen, and they have brought that out. That's their role, and they have done that very well and courageously."
He said that likening Snowden's actions to the Cambridge spy ring, as the former No 10 security adviser Sir David Omand has, was "frankly somewhat bizarre".
"I mean, they were acting covertly over a long period of time. This was a whistleblower acting very publicly," he said. "There is a question about sensitive intelligence he put into the wrong hands. That will obviously have to be pursued."
Asked whether there was a distinction between the decision to leak the information and the right to publish it, the business secretary replied: "I think there is a distinction between whistleblowing to draw the public's attention to things happening in the intelligence world that shouldn't have been happening absolutely right and actually putting into the hands of other people a lot of very, very detailed intelligence information which they shouldn't have had. I think it is an important distinction and I think most people would understand that."
Clegg's aides said on Thursday that he would be calling in experts from inside and outside Whitehall to discuss the implications of the new surveillance technologies for public accountability and trust. It is the first time such a senior figure in government has conceded that the revelations published in the Guardian have highlighted concerns about the accountability of the security services.
Clegg hinted at his plans in his weekly phone-in on London's LBC radio, saying: "I think it is right to ask whether there is anything more we can do to make sure the public feel accountability is working in this area properly. There is a totally legitimate debate about the power of these technologies, about how you get the balance right, how you do make sure these technologies are used in an accountable and proportionate way."
But Clegg also joined the prime minister, David Cameron, and the head of MI5, Andrew Parker, in declaring that the Guardian had published information, passed to the paper Snowden, that was not in the public interest. He said: "I don't think just giving technical secrets to those who wish to do us harm serves any purpose."
Clegg's aides did not give specific examples of details published by the Guardian that would give this help to terrorists.
Cameron said: "When you get newspapers who get hold of vast amounts of data and information that is effectively stolen information and they think it's OK to reveal this, I think they have to think about their responsibilities and are they helping to keep our country safe."
The prime minister acknowledged that the paper had destroyed some information at his request. He also hinted at movement on the issue, saying: "I am satisfied that the work these agencies do is not only vital but it is properly overseen. That is what this debate needs to be about. If people want to suggest improvements about how they are governed and looked after, I am happy to listen to those."
In the wake of Parker's speech this week attacking the Guardian's disclosures, some British newspapers, notably the Daily Mail, accused the Guardian of being a newspaper that helps Britain's enemies. The Mail said the paper had "crossed a line with lethal irresponsibility".
But more than 20 leading newspaper editors from a dozen countries rallied to defend the Guardian's handling of the Snowden files. Many insisted that journalists were quite capable of deciding which information is too dangerous to publish and which information the public has a right to knew. "Journalists have only one responsibility: to keep their readers informed and educated about whatever their government is doing on their behalf," said Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of Israel's Haaretz.
Several editors expressed disappointment that the Guardian had come under attack from other journalists. Javier Moreno, director of El País in Spain, said: "What's sad, baffling and dangerous is that the attacks now come not only from governments but from other newspapers too. We need newspapers wiling to do their job, rather than those ready to cheer on the self-interested deceptions of the powerful."
Wolfgang Büchner, editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel in Germany, said: "It is a tragedy that media outlets aligned with governments are now accusing the journalists uncovering these abuses of 'lethal irresponsibility'. "It had not been known that Clegg was to take active steps to review the issue, a route apparently closed off by the parliamentary watchdog, the intelligence and security committee (ISC).
The ISC had declared, following a short investigation in private, that the security services were not bypassing the current systems of ministerial oversight.
But the deputy prime minister's aides said: "We are completely supportive of you lifting the lid on a lot of this, and starting a debate to which he is trying to contribute."
Clegg himself said: "There is a totally legitimate debate to be had, and in my experience from speaking to people in the security services they recognise this, about the use of these incredibly powerful technologies. We have legislation regulations that were designed for an age that is quite different now. Both terrorist states and security services conduct this battle online in a way that was quite unimaginable just a few years ago.
"What that means for privacy and proportionality is a totally legitimate area for debate. How you hold the secret parts of any state to account is an incredibly important issue.
"We have to defend the principle of secrecy but you can only really make secrecy legitimate in the eyes of the public if there is a proper form of accountability."
The first public indications of government disquiet in the UK came as a new drive started in the US to bring the National Security Agency to account.
The conservative Republican who authored the US Patriot Act is preparing to unveil bipartisan legislation that would dramatically curtail the domestic surveillance powers it gives to intelligence agencies.
Congressmen Jim Sensenbrenner, who worked with president George W Bush to give more power to US spies after the 11 September terrorist attack, said they had misused it by collecting telephone records on all Americans and claimed it was time "to put their metadata programme out of business".
Many lawmakers have agreed that new legislation is required owing to the collapse in public trust following Snowden's disclosures that the NSA was collecting bulk records of all US phone calls in order to sift out potential terrorist targets.
This article was amended on 11th October. We originally stated that the ISC had declared that the security services were bypassing systems of ministerial oversight. In fact they had declared that these systems were not being bypassed. This has been changed.