US: No plans to end surveillance programme
11 June 2013, 13:41
Washington — The Obama administration will continue its broad US spy programme that it says is keeping America safe from terrorists, even as the White House faces fresh anger at home and abroad over its secretive surveillance system that tracks phone and internet messages around the world.
The programmes causing the global uproar were revealed by Edward Snowden, aged 29, an employee of government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. His identity was revealed at his own request, and he has fled to Hong Kong in hopes of escaping criminal charges as lawmakers including Senate intelligence chairperson Senator Dianne Feinstein of California accuse him of committing an "act of treason" that should be prosecuted.
Coolly but firmly, officials in Germany and the European Union issued complaints on Monday over two National Security Agency programmes that target suspicious foreign messages — potentially including phone numbers, e-mail, images, video and other online communications transmitted through US providers. The chief British diplomat felt it necessary to try to assure Parliament that the spy programmes do not encroach on UK privacy laws.
And in Washington, members of Congress said they would take a new look at potential ways to keep the US safe from terror attacks without giving up privacy protections that critics charge are at risk with the government's current authority to broadly sweep up personal communications.
"There's very little trust in the government, and that's for good reason," said Democratic Representative Adam Schiff, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee. "We're our own worst enemy."
A senior US intelligence official on Monday said there were no plans to scrap the programmes that, despite the backlash, continue to receive widespread if cautious support within Congress. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive security issue.
The programmes were revealed last week by The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers. National Intelligence Director James Clapper has taken the unusual step of declassifying some of the previously top-secret details to help the administration mount a public defence of the surveillance as a necessary step to protect Americans.
Independent Senator Angus King, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was considering how Congress could limit the amount of data spy agencies seize from telephone and internet companies — including restricting the information to be released only on an as-needed basis.
"It's a little unsettling to have this massive data in the government's possession," King said.
One of the NSA programmes gathers hundreds of millions of US phone records to search for possible links to known terrorist targets abroad. The other allows the government to tap into nine US internet companies and gather all communications to detect suspicious behaviour that begins overseas.
Snowden is a former CIA employee who later worked as a contractor for the NSA on behalf of Booz Allen, where he gained access to the surveillance. Republican Senator Susan Collins said it was "absolutely shocking" that a 29-year-old with limited experience would have access to this material.
FBI agents on Monday visited the home of Snowden's father, Lonnie Snowden, Pennsylvania. The FBI in Philadelphia declined to comment.
The first explosive document Snowden revealed was a top secret court order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that granted a three-month renewal for a massive collection of American phone records. That order was signed on 25 April. The Guardian's first story on the court order was published on 5 June.
In a statement issued on Sunday, Booz Allen said Snowden had been an employee for fewer than three months, so it's possible he was working as an NSA contractor when the order was issued.
He also gave the Post and the Guardian a PowerPoint presentation on another secret programme that collects online usage by the nine internet providers. The US government says it uses that information only to track foreigners' use overseas.
Believing his role would soon be exposed, Snowden fled last month to Hong Kong, a Chinese territory that enjoys relative autonomy from Beijing. His exact whereabouts were unknown on Monday.
"All of the options, as he put it, are bad options," Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who first reported the phone-tracking programme and interviewed Snowden extensively, told The Associated Press on Monday. He said Snowden decided to release details of the programmes out of shock and anger over the sheer scope of the government's privacy invasions.
"It was his choice to publicly unveil himself," Greenwald told the AP in Hong Kong. "He recognised that even if he hadn't publicly unveiled himself, it was only a matter of time before the US government discovered that it was he who had been responsible for these disclosures, and he made peace with that. ... He's very steadfast and resolute about the fact that he did the right thing."
Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the US, but the document has some exceptions, including for crimes deemed political. Any negotiations about his possible handover will involve Beijing, but some analysts believe China is unlikely to want to jeopardise its relationship with Washington over someone it would consider of little political interest.
Snowden also told The Guardian that he may seek asylum in Iceland, which has strong free-speech protections and a tradition of providing a haven for the outspoken and the outcast.
The Justice Department is investigating whether his disclosures were a criminal offense — a matter that's not always clear-cut under federal law.
A second senior intelligence official said Snowden would have had to have signed a non-disclosure agreement to gain access to the top secret data. That suggests he could be prosecuted for violating that agreement. Penalties could range from a few years to life in prison. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the process of accessing classified materials more frankly.
If Snowden is forced to return to the United States to face charges, whistle-blower advocates said on Monday that they would raise money for his legal defence.
Clapper has ordered an internal review to assess how much damage the disclosures created.
The Obama administration also now must deal with the political and diplomatic fallout of the disclosures. Privacy laws across much of Western Europe are stricter than they are in the United States.
On Tuesday, the European Parliament, through its 27-nation executive arm, will debate the spy programmes and whether they have violated local privacy protections. EU officials in Brussels pledged to seek answers from US diplomats at a trans-Atlantic ministerial meeting in Dublin that begins on Thursday.
In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague was forced to deny allegations that the UK government had used information provided by the Americans to circumvent British laws. "We want the British people to have confidence in the work of our intelligence agencies and in their adherence to the law and democratic values," Hague told Parliament.
White House spokesperson Jay Carney said Obama was open for a discussion about the spy programmes, both with allies and in Congress. His administration has aggressively defended the two programmes and credited them with helping stop at least two terrorist attacks, including one in New York City.
Privacy rights advocates say Obama has gone too far. The American Civil Liberties Union and Yale Law School filed legal action on Monday to force a secret US court to make public its opinions justifying the scope of some of the surveillance, calling the programmes "shockingly broad".