WASHINGTON—A fierce debate about Internet privacy and the limits of US presidential power erupted on Tuesday in a victory for a former CIA employee at the center of a global leak storm.
While 29-year-old Edward Snowden has gone to ground in Hong Kong amid US threats to sue him for blowing the lid on Washington’s vast Internet snooping program, the whistle-blower has triggered the public battle that he wanted.
A bipartisan group of US lawmakers, civil liberties groups and even one of the Web giants accused of collaborating with the intelligence sweep separately urged President Barack Obama’s administration to lift the veil of secrecy.
“We can’t have a serious debate about how much surveillance of Americans’ communications should be permitted without ending secret law,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley, one of eight senators proposing a bill to increase transparency.
“Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law,” Merkley said, arguing this could be done without “tipping our hand to our enemies.”
Snowden’s leaks to The Guardian and The Washington Post last week revealed details of Prism, a top secret program of the US National Security Agency (NSA) to collect and analyze data from Internet users around the world.
But even as the snooping spurred distrust in the Obama administration in America and around the world, US intelligence chiefs insisted the spying program has saved American lives by helping agents thwart terror plots.
Many were outraged by the breadth and secrecy of the operation, which was carried out under the broad brush terms of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) and the Patriot Act.
Web giants embarrassed
Under these laws, Internet companies like Google, Facebook and Apple have been obliged to secretly provide customer data to the NSA when ordered to do so by the secret Fisa court, and last week’s leak embarrassed the Web giants.
On Tuesday, Google wrote to the US Department of Justice seeking permission to release figures on its surrender of data to surveillance programs in order to head off reports that it had given the government a back door to its servers.
The letter, signed by Google’s chief legal officer David Drummond, said: “Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the US government unfettered access to our users’ data are simply untrue.”
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, warned that other governments could “see US practice as a green light for their own secret surveillance programs,” tarnishing US credibility on the issue of Internet freedom.
At the US Congress, lawmakers voiced their confusion and concern, and some called for the end of sweeping surveillance programs by US spy agencies after receiving an unusual briefing on the government’s yearslong collection of phone records and Internet usage.
The phalanx of FBI, legal and intelligence officials who briefed the entire House of Representatives was the latest attempt to soothe outrage over NSA spying programs.
Some congressmen admitted they had been caught unawares by the scope of the programs, having skipped previous briefings by the intelligence committees.
“I think Congress has really found itself a little bit asleep at the wheel,” said Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee.
Many lawmakers leaving the briefing declared themselves disturbed by what they had heard—and in need of more answers.
“Congress needs to debate this issue and determine what tools we give to our intelligence community to protect us from a terrorist attack,” said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, top Democrat on the House intelligence committee.
“Really it’s a debate between public safety, how far we go with public safety and protecting us from terrorist attacks versus how far we go on the other side,” said Ruppersberger, a backer of the surveillance.
Separately, a coalition of Internet and rights groups including the Mozilla Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union (Aclu), Greenpeace USA, World Wide Web Foundation and more than 80 more organizations also demanded more openness.
The groups launched a website, StopWatching.us, and called on Congress to launch a full investigation.
“We don’t want an Internet where everything we do is secretly logged and tracked by government,” said Alex Fowler, head of privacy and public policy for Mozilla, which produces the Firefox browser.
The country’s main civil liberties organization wasn’t buying the administration’s explanations, filing the most significant lawsuit against the massive phone record collection program so far.
The Aclu and its New York chapter sued the federal government on Tuesday, asking a New York court to demand that the Obama administration end the program and purge the records it had collected.
The Aclu is claiming standing as a customer of Verizon, which was identified last week as the phone company the government had ordered to turn over daily records of calls made by all its customers.
It also launched a separate lawsuit that described as unconstitutional a spying program in which the phone records of millions of US citizens had been seized.
US public opinion
Polls of US public opinion show a mixed response to the controversy. A poll by The Washington Post and the Pew Research Center conducted over the weekend found Americans generally prioritize the government’s need to investigate terrorist threats over the need to protect personal privacy.
But a CBS News poll conducted on June 9-10 showed that while most people approved of government collection of phone records of Americans suspected of terrorist activity and Internet activities of foreigners, a majority disapproved of federal agencies collecting the phone records of ordinary Americans.
Thirty percent agreed with the government’s assessment that the revelation of the programs would hurt US ability to prevent future terrorist attacks, while 57 percent said it would have no impact.
Hero or traitor?
The debate about Prism—and about Snowden’s actions—is not one-sided. Popular daily USA Today summed up the Snowden question neatly in its front-page headline: “A hero or is he a traitor?”
Obama’s spy chief, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, has described the leaks as gravely damaging, and investigations are under way by both the justice department and the intelligence community.
“There is a review of how these leaks may have damaged important intelligence community programs,” a US intelligence official told Agence France-Presse. “The Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive is coordinating the review.”
Speaker John Boehner called Snowden a “traitor,” while Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate intelligence committee, branded the leak an “act of treason.”
Even so, White House spokesman Jay Carney refused to say whether Obama saw Snowden as a traitor. “I won’t characterize him or his status. We believe it is the appropriate posture to take to let the investigation move forward,” Carney said.
Cache of secrets
Snowden, a technician working for the private defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, traveled from Hawaii to Hong Kong on May 20 with a cache of secrets harvested from NSA servers, according to The Guardian.
The whistle-blower gave a video interview to The Guardian in a Hong Kong hotel to explain his motives, but he has since checked out and his location is a mystery.
Snowden told The Guardian he could not “allow the US government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”