WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is weighing whether to charge a government contractor with leaking classified government secrets while it defends a much-criticized National Security Agency surveillance program as an indispensable tool for protecting Americans 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. EU officials in Brussels pledged to seek answers from U.S. 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 hopes of escaping criminal charges as lawmakers including Senate intelligence chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California accuse him of committing an "act of treason" that should be prosecuted.
Officials in Germany and the European Union 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 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, 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.
FBI agents on Monday visited the home of Snowden's father, Lonnie Snowden, in Upper Macungie Township, Pa. 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 April 25. The Guardian's first story on the court order was published June 5.
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 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.
"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, told The Associated Press 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 told the AP in Hong Kong. "He recognized that even if he hadn't publicly unveiled himself, it was only a matter of time before the U.S. 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."
Greenwald told the AP that he had more documents from Snowden and expected "more significant revelations" about NSA.
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 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.
The leak came to light as Army Pfc. Bradley Manning was 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 was aiding the enemy, which carries a potential life sentence. But the military operates under a different legal system.
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. Intelligence experts say terrorist suspects and others seeking to attack the U.S. all but 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.
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Army records indicate Snowden enlisted in the Army around May 2004 and was discharged that September.
"He attempted to qualify to become a Special Forces soldier but did not complete the requisite training and was administratively discharged from the Army," Col. David H. Patterson Jr., an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said in a statement late Monday.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Frederic Frommer and Matt Apuzzo in Washington, Robert H. Reid in Berlin and Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong contributed to this report. Follow Lara Jakes on Twitter at https://twitter.com/larajakesAP