An ex-CIA worker’s exposure of a once-secret U.S. electronic surveillance program has spawned a criminal investigation and congressional questions about the ability of a low-level employee to breach national security.
The Obama administration, while refusing to say what it knows about Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old American and former technical assistant for the Central Intelligence Agency, said the case is being investigated, including his whereabouts. Calls increased in Congress for an indictment and extradition for what several lawmakers called treason.
“I hope that he is prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said after a closed-door meeting of all Senate Republicans.
All members of the House are scheduled to be briefed about the leak at 5 p.m. today by intelligence and law enforcement officials including Deputy Attorney General James Cole and Deputy NSA Director Chris Inglis. Members of the Senate intelligence committee were given a briefing this afternoon and a separate session for the full Senate is set for June 13.
For the second day, President Barack Obama’s spokesman declined to give any details about Snowden, citing a probe by the Justice Department into disclosures about the government’s secret collection of telephone and Internet data under a law passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“I am not going to discuss the subject of a recently opened investigation,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said. Any damage to U.S. intelligence gathering is still being assessed, he said.
General Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, didn’t know the whereabouts of Snowden when he briefed members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, the panel’s top Republican.
Chambliss said he’s bracing for Snowden to release more classified data.
“Apparently he’s got a thumb drive,” Chambliss said in an interview, adding that he didn’t know what information Snowden might have. “He’s already exposed part of it and I guess he’s going to expose the rest of it.”
Snowden worked at the NSA for the past four years under various contractors, according to reports by the Guardian and the Washington Post, which said he provided them with documents about a program to spy on Internet communications known as “PRISM” that the government has now acknowledged.
He went to Hong Kong after leaving the U.S. on May 20, according to the Guardian. He is still in the city and moved to a “safer” hotel yesterday, the paper reported today.
Snowden most recently was an employee of government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp., which announced today it has fired him from his $122,000 a year job. Snowden worked for the company for less than three months and was assigned to a team in Hawaii that worked with the NSA.
In an earlier statement, Booz Allen called Snowden’s act “shocking” and “a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, described Snowden’s actions “not as one of patriotism but potentially a felony” in a message on his Twitter account. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said Snowden’s leak of classified information constitutes “treason.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, supervised by the Justice Department’s national security division, and the NSA are conducting inquiries into the leak and Snowden’s access to the documents and information disclosed to the newspapers.
The FBI is conducting a broad investigation, according to U.S. officials, who asked not to be identified because the probe is still under way. That has included interviews with family, reviews of his communications and exploration into whether he had any help obtaining the leaked material.
Meanwhile, Google Inc., the owner of the world’s most popular Internet search engine, has asked the U.S. government to allow the company to publish some of the details of national-security requests, including FISA disclosures, in its transparency report.
“Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made,” David Drummond, the company’s chief legal officer, said in the letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Nanda Chitre, a spokeswoman with the Justice Department, and Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman, didn’t have immediate comments on the request.
While the saga has renewed debate on Capitol Hill over government surveillance of the communications of millions of Americans in the interest of averting terrorist attacks, public opinion polling shows some support for it.
The administration maintains that it has been tracking the records and duration of telephone calls placed -- not, as Obama has put it, listening to Americans’ phone calls. And the president has said the NSA surveillance of e-mails hasn’t targeted American citizens or residents.
Polling shows somewhat stronger public support for telephone surveillance than for e-mail tracking.
NSA tracking of telephone records to prevent terrorism is acceptable to 56 percent of Americans in a Pew Research Center Poll conducted June 6-9, with 41 percent opposing it. That’s up from the 51 percent who said in January 2006 that it was acceptable that the NSA secretly monitored communications after news reports about the program under President George W. Bush.
Asked if the government should be able to monitor everyone’s e-mail to prevent possible terrorism, 45 percent said yes in the Pew survey and 52 percent said no.
The poll of 1,004 people has an error margin of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
The NSA programs also have defenders in Congress.
“The Supreme Court’s already said you do not have a right to privacy to the fact that you made calls,’” Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, said. “It’s the content of those calls that you have a right to privacy.”