WASHINGTON - The Obama administration defended a much-criticized National Security Agency surveillance program as an indispensable tool for protecting Americans from terrorists on Tuesday.
Facing a global uproar over the programs that track phone and Internet messages around the world, the Justice Department continued to investigate whether the disclosures of Edward Snowden, 29, an employee of government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, were criminal.
Lawmakers including Senate intelligence chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California accuse him of committing an "act of treason" that should be prosecuted.
Snowden has few options to stay one step ahead of the authorities. One possibility is to seek asylum in a place that does not have an extradition pact with the United States.
- Read more about Snowden's options for seeking asylum: http://ch7ne.ws/1a1bgkD
Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who first reported the phone-tracking program and interviewed Snowden extensively, told the AP that he had more documents from Snowden and expected "more significant revelations" about NSA.
In Washington, members of Congress said they would take a new look at potential ways to keep the U.S. 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 Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who sits on the House Intelligence Committee. "We're our own worst enemy."
House Speaker John Boehner, however, said he believes President Barack Obama has fully explained why the program is needed. He told ABC's "Good Morning America" Tuesday that "the disclosure of this information puts Americans at risk. It shows our adversaries what our capabilities are and it's a giant violation of the law." He called Snowden a "traitor."
A senior U.S. intelligence official on Monday said there were 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.
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.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, 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 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.
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. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine said, it was "absolutely shocking" that a 29-year-old with limited experience would have access to this material.
“Snowden, who had a salary at the rate of $122,000, was terminated June 10, 2013, for violations of the firm’s code of ethics and firm policy.” Booz Allen told Politico Tuesday.
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 April 25. The Guardian's first story on the court order was published June 5.
Snowden 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.
The Justice Department is investigating whether his disclosures were a criminal offense -- a matter that's not always clear-cut under U.S. 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 Monday that they would raise money for his legal defense.
Clapper has ordered an internal review to assess how much damage the disclosures created.
Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg called the revelations by a government contractor on U.S. secret surveillance programs the most "significant disclosure" in the nation's history. In 1971, Ellsberg passed the secret
Defense Department study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam to The New York Times and other newspapers. The 7,000 pages showed that the U.S. government repeatedly misled the public about the war. Their leak set off a clash between the Nixon administration and the press and led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling on the First Amendment.
Intelligence experts say terrorist suspects and others seeking to attack the U.S. certainly will find alternate ways to communicate instead of relying on systems that now are widely known to be under surveillance.
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.
"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 Belgian member of the European parliament and 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.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama was open for a discussion about the spy programs, both with allies and in Congress. His administration has aggressively defended the two programs 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 Monday to force a secret U.S. court to make public its opinions justifying the scope of some of the surveillance, calling the programs "shockingly broad." And conservative lawyer Larry Klayman filed a separate lawsuit against the Obama administration, claiming he and others have been harmed by the government's collection of as many as 3 billion phone numbers each day.