WASHINGTON — 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 of California, 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, email, 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.
And in Washington, 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.
"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."
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.
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.
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 Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said it was "absolutely shocking" that a 29-year-old with limited experience would have access to this material.
The first explosive document he revealed was a top secret court order issued by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that granted a three-month renewal for a massive collection of American phone records. That order was signed April 25.
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.Comment on this story
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.