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No going back on surveillance: Obama

world Updated: Jun 12, 2013 01:40 IST
AP
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United States president Barack Obama's administration is considering whether to charge a government contractor with leaking classified surveillance secrets, while it defends the broad U.S. spy program that it says keeps America safe from terrorists.

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.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament planned to debate the spy programs Tuesday and whether they have violated local privacy protections. European Union (EU) officials in Brussels pledged to seek answers from US diplomats at a trans-Atlantic ministerial meeting in Dublin later this week.

The global scrutiny comes after revelations from Snowden, who has chosen to reveal his identity. Snowden has fled to Hong Kong in the hope of escaping criminal charges, as lawmakers including Senate intelligence chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein accuse him of committing an "act of treason" that should be prosecuted.

Officials in Germany and the EU issued calm but firm complaints Monday, over two National Security Agency programs that target suspicious foreign messages — potentially including phone numbers, email, images, video and other online communications transmitted through US providers. British foreign secretary William Hague tried to assure Parliament that the spy programs do not encroach on UK privacy laws.

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And in Washington, members of the US Congress said they would take a new look at potential ways to keep the US safe from terror attacks without giving up privacy protections.

"There's very little trust in the government, and that's for good reason," said Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat who sits on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee. "We're our own worst enemy."

Republican 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 US 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.

Senator Angus King, an independent 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 National Security Agency's programs 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 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.

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.

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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.

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 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.

"All of the options, as he put it, are bad options," Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who first reported the phone-tracking program and interviewed Snowden extensively, said on Monday. He said Snowden decided to release details of the programs out of shock and anger over the sheer scope of the government's privacy invasions.

"It was his choice to publicly unveil himself," Greenwald said in Hong Kong. "He recognized 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."

Although Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the US, 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.

The Justice Department is investigating whether his disclosures were a criminal offence — a matter that is not always clear-cut under US federal law.

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 US 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.

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters Monday that Chancellor Angela Merkel would question Obama about the NSA program when he is in Berlin on June 18, for his first visit to the German capital as president. In Germany, privacy regulations are especially strict.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama was open for a discussion about the spy programs, both with allies and in the US 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 US court to make public its opinions justifying the scope of some of the surveillance, calling the programs "shockingly broad." 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.


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