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 under investigation. With Snowden having fled to Hong Kong, congressional leaders are demanding his indictment and extradition for what one senator called treason.
“There is, obviously, an investigation under way into this matter,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday, declining to comment further about Snowden, who provided detailed information about a wide-reaching National Security Agency Internet surveillance program to journalists and then revealed his own identity voluntarily.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, said in a statement that “anyone responsible for leaking classified information should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, has scheduled a June 13 briefing by law enforcement and intelligence officials for all members of the Senate on the NSA program.
The full House will be briefed at 5 p.m. today 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 identified because the information hasn’t been made public.
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.”
Activists supporting Snowden called for the creation of a legal defense fund for him and started a petition on the White House website calling him a “national hero” and seeking a pre- emptive presidential pardon on his behalf.
Snowden went to Hong Kong 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 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 known as “PRISM,” which the government has now acknowledged.
Booz Allen, calling Snowden’s act “shocking” and “a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm,” said in a statement that it will work closely with authorities to investigate. Snowden worked for the company for less than three months.
The company, which is majority owned by Washington-based private-equity firm Carlyle Group LP, relied on the federal government for 99 percent of its $5.76 billion in revenue in the year ended March 31, according to a regulatory filing.
McLean, Virginia-based Booz Allen declined 2.6 percent, to $17.54, yesterday in New York on volume more than four times the three-month average. Shares are up 26 percent this year.
While the saga has renewed debate on Capitol Hill over the government’s 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 President Barack 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.”
Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said the steps taken by the government have been effective.
“We have to figure out whether we’re going to make the country safe or roll the dice,” he said.
Burr and other senators said they want to know how Snowden got access to so much classified material.
“At the very least it shows that we need to be much more careful in granting apparently unfettered access to highly classified information to individuals who have little experience,” said Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins.
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.”
The Justice Department said June 9 that it is in the initial stages of a criminal investigation. Though Snowden has said he is the individual responsible for the release of the information, the FBI still will conduct a full-scale investigation, including interviews with his associates and family, according to U.S. officials.
A legal defense fund for Snowden has been established, according to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the National Whistle-blower Center.
Julian Assange, founder of the anti-secrecy WikiLeaks website, yesterday praised Snowden as “heroic” while faulting U.S. surveillance initiatives as “driftnet fishing.” During an interview with CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” Assange urged Snowden to seek refuge in Latin America, a region that he said has “a long tradition of asylum.”
The 41-year-old Australian spoke with CNN from Ecuador’s embassy in London. Assange sought asylum there last year to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faces questioning over allegations of rape and sexual molestation.
Assange has refused to go to Sweden, citing concern that he would be extradited to the U.S. for releasing diplomatic secrets, and London police have said they will arrest him if he leaves the embassy. The classified State Department documents were provided to WikiLeaks by Army Private First Class Bradley Manning, who’s on trial in the U.S. in connection with the case.
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.
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