The Obama administration faced fresh anger Monday at home and abroad over U.S. spy programs that track phone and Internet messages around the world in the hope of thwarting terrorist threats. But a senior intelligence official said there are no plans to end the secretive surveillance systems.
The programs causing the global uproar were revealed by Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old employee of government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Snowden, whose identity was revealed at his own request, has fled to Hong Kong in hopes of escaping criminal charges. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee and supports the surveillance, accused Snowden of committing an "act of treason" and said he should be prosecuted.
Coolly but firmly, officials in Germany and the European Union issued complaints over two National Security Agency programs that target suspicious foreign messages—potentially including phone numbers, e-mail, images, video and other online communications transmitted through U.S. providers. The chief British diplomat felt it necessary to try to assure Parliament that the spy programs do not encroach on U.K. privacy laws.
The programs 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 defense of the surveillance as a necessary step to protect Americans.
One of the NSA programs gathers hundreds of millions of U.S. phone records to search for possible links to known terrorist targets abroad. The other allows the government to tap into nine U.S. Internet companies and gather all communications to detect suspicious behavior that begins overseas.
The revelations have reopened the post-Sept. 11, 2001, debate about individual privacy concerns versus heightened measures to protect the U.S. against terrorist attacks.
Some members of Congress said they would take a new look at scaling back the government's authority to broadly sweep up personal communications when such surveillance risks privacy protections.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said there are no plans to scrap the programs 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.
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.
In a statement issued 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 program that collects online usage by the nine Internet providers. The U.S. 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 Monday.
Although Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the U.S., 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 jeopardize 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 leak came to light as Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is being tried in military court under federal espionage and computer fraud laws for releasing classified documents to WikiLeaks about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other items. The most serious charge against him is aiding the enemy, which carries a potential life sentence. But the military operates under a different legal system.
The Obama administration must also now 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 programs and whether they have violated local privacy protections. E.U. officials in Brussels pledged to seek answers from U.S. diplomats at a trans-Atlantic ministerial meeting in Dublin that begins Thursday.
"It would be unacceptable and would need swift action from the EU if indeed the U.S. National Security Agency were processing European data without permission," said Guy Verhofstadt, a leader in the Alde group of liberal parties.
Additionally, German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters Monday that Chancellor Angela Merkel would question President Barack Obama about the NSA program when he's in Berlin on June 18 for his first visit to the German capital as president. In Germany, privacy regulations are especially strict, and the NSA programs could tarnish a visit that both sides had hoped would reaffirm strong German-American ties.
In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague was forced to deny allegations that the U.K. 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.
Explore further: Queen sends first tweet, signed 'Elizabeth R'