With the security contractor and ex-CIA worker who revealed a once-secret U.S. electronic surveillance program having fled overseas, the government is investigating the leak and seeking to contain damage.
The Obama administration refused to say what it knows about Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old American and former technical assistant for the Central Intelligence Agency, or what steps it may take.
“There is, obviously, an investigation under way into this matter,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said today, declining to comment further when asked about Snowden, who provided the information about the surveillance program to journalists and revealed his identity voluntarily.
As lawmakers awaited briefings from administration officials, activists supporting Snowden announced the creation of a legal defense fund for him. They started a petition on the White House’s website calling him a “national hero” and seeking a pre-emptive pardon on his behalf.
Snowden was hiding in a Hong Kong hotel after leaving the U.S. on May 20, according to the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper.
An employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp., Snowden worked at the National Security Agency for the past four years for various contractors, according to reports by the Guardian and the Washington Post, which said he provided them with documents about a program known as “PRISM,” which the government has now acknowledged.
Carney echoed remarks by President Barack Obama last week in defending the government’s collection of communications data, saying a balance between privacy protections and necessary intelligence gathering “has been appropriately struck.”
He referred questions about assessments of harm to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “Revelations like this can be and have been damaging,” Carney said of national security leaks in general. “This information is classified for a reason.”
Shawn Turner, a spokesman for James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence, said in an e-mailed statement that U.S. intelligence agencies are “currently reviewing the damage that has been done by these recent disclosures.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, said on “CBS This Morning” that the administration would begin briefing lawmakers today and Congress would conduct a “very serious” investigation.
The full House will be briefed at 5 p.m. tomorrow by intelligence and law enforcement officials including Deputy Attorney General James Cole and Deputy NSA Director Chris Inglis, according to a congressional aide who asked not to be named because the information hasn’t been made public.
The Justice Department said yesterday it is in the initial stages of its criminal investigation into the “unauthorized disclosure of classified information by an individual.” The FBI has started its investigation into the leak, which it will carry out in consultation with prosecutors in the Justice Department’s national security division.
Though Snowden has come forward and said he is the individual responsible for the release of the information, the FBI still will conduct a full-scale investigation, including interviews with Snowden’s associates and family and an intensive review of communications and technology used, according to U.S. officials.
Should Snowden be indicted by a grand jury, the U.S. would be required to present probable cause to Hong Kong authorities. As part of a 1996 extradition treaty with the country, the State Department would then make a formal extradition request to the country. Hong Kong officials would make the decision on whether to extradite Snowden, according to the treaty.
“The Chinese have no interest in making this an issue,” said David Zweig, professor of social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “He hasn’t helped China necessarily. This is an internal affair within the United States. They’ll see it that way. If they hold on to him then it just strengthens the American right to intervene in China’s internal affairs.”
A spokesman for Hong Kong’s Security Bureau and a spokesman for the Department of Justice declined to comment, asking not to be named due to a government policy.
The latest disclosures of classified information came as another self-described whistle-blower, Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, 25, is on trial charged with providing a trove of classified State Department documents to WikiLeaks. Manning, who has admitted providing hundreds of thousands of documents to the anti-secrecy website, plead guilty earlier this year to charges that could bring 20 years imprisonment. The military is conducting a court-martial on charges that include aiding the enemy, which carries a potential life sentence.
Booz Allen posted a statement on its website saying the news reports on Snowden are “shocking, and if accurate, this action represents a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm.”
The company said it will work closely with authorities to investigate. Snowden had worked for Booz Allen for fewer than three months, according to the statement.
A legal defense fund for Snowden has been established, according to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the National Whistle-blower Center.
Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistle-blower Center, said in a fundraising letter released today that Snowden is “a whistle-blower, and he deserves our full support,” repeating Snowden’s allegations that NSA officials had lied to Congress in the context of the scope of U.S. surveillance programs.
Separately, the American Civil Liberties Union and a Yale Law School clinic filed a motion with the court overseeing surveillance programs, seeking its opinions on the scope of the section of the Patriot Act authorizing the surveillance as well as a review of a gag order that prevents telephone and Internet providers from revealing they have been ordered to turn over information to the U.S. government as part of the surveillance program.