WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration has launched an internal review of the potential damage to national security from leaks about U.S. surveillance efforts, as a group of senators and technology companies on Tuesday pushed the government to be more open about the top-secret programs.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said the review will be separate from a Justice Department criminal investigation into Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the National Security Agency’s broad monitoring of phone call and Internet data from big companies such as Google Inc and Facebook Inc.
The review is expected to evaluate whether the leaks have compromised sources or surveillance methods, and would likely look for chatter among intelligence targets to see if the leaks have prompted them to change tactics.
Reporters staked out hotels in Hong Kong in hopes of spotting Snowden, an NSA contractor who went public in a video released on Sunday by Britain’s Guardian newspaper but then dropped from sight in the former British colony and has yet to resurface.
General Keith Alexander, head of the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, told the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed-door briefing that he did not know where Snowden was, said Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the panel.
Booz Allen Hamilton, the company that most recently employed Snowden, said it had terminated Snowden’s employment on Monday for violations of its code of ethics and policies. It said he had been an employee for less than three months at an annual salary rate of $122,000.
The revelations from Snowden have launched a sharp debate about the tradeoffs between privacy rights and national security in the United States and whether the surveillance measures have been given sufficient scrutiny and oversight.
Members of Congress promised an extensive public discussion and more legislative efforts to tighten the laws on U.S. government surveillance.
“We’ll have a lot of hearings on this,” said Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat. She said there were questions about how Snowden, a high-school dropout, gained a top-secret clearance and access to high-level government secrets.
A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill designed to end the secret supervision of the programs by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court by requiring declassification of significant court rulings.
“Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law,” said Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat and chief co-sponsor of the bill with Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican.
Big technology companies issued a series of pleas on Tuesday for the government to lift the veil on national security requests to the private sector.
Google sent a letter to U.S. authorities asking that secrecy restrictions be loosened so the company could publish the number and scope of surveillance court requests. “Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide,” said David Drummond, the company’s chief legal officer.
Microsoft Corp and Facebook also released statements urging the U.S. government to permit greater transparency on such requests.
Separately, a coalition of privacy advocacy groups sent a letter demanding that Congress halt and investigate the surveillance programs.
In New York, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court challenging the legality of the telephone surveillance program, saying it violates free speech and privacy protections in the U.S. Constitution.
Snowden said in the Guardian video that he wanted to make the public aware of the NSA’s broad surveillance programs, but his disclosures to the Guardian and the Washington Post have sparked a mix of condemnation and praise.
“He’s a traitor,” House Speaker John Boehner said of Snowden in an interview with ABC News. Boehner defended the NSA programs and their congressional oversight, saying Americans are not “snooped on” unless they communicate with a terrorist in another country.
“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,” Boehner said.
Many other lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, have also called for swift punishment. But Senator Rand Paul, a Republican popular with the Tea Party movement that campaigns against intrusive government, said he was reserving judgment on Snowden and said such acts of civil disobedience happen when people felt like they had no other options.
The Snowden case has unnerved the contractor community and offered a stark reminder about the challenges posed by a rogue insider. U.S. defense contractors this week reassured their customers that they have rigorous security procedures in place. Some, including Boeing Co, reminded employees about the importance of proper handling of classified or sensitive information.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper sent a message on Monday to intelligence community workers re-emphasizing the need to safeguard sensitive data and reassuring private contractors they are “an integral part of our workforce and are critical to our national security efforts.”
As of October 1, 2012, about 1.4 million people hold “top secret” security clearances, Clapper’s office says. Nearly 800,000 government employees had “top secret” clearances.
In Hong Kong, reporters continued to stake out hotels across the city on Tuesday in search of Snowden, who checked out of his luxury hotel in the Kowloon district on Monday.
Snowden said he fled to Hong Kong because of its commitment to free speech and political dissent, but pro-democracy activists have complained that the former British colony’s freedoms have eroded since its return to Chinese rule in 1997.
Hong Kong has a longstanding extradition agreement with the United States that has been exercised on numerous occasions since 1998, but Snowden could challenge any U.S. extradition request and make a claim for political asylum, a course of action that typically takes months if not years.
Russia said it would be willing to consider granting asylum to Snowden if he asks for it. “If he says: I request (political asylum), then we will consider it,” Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, was quoted as saying in the Russian daily Kommersant.
Snowden has not mentioned the possibility in public of seeking asylum in Russia. He has mentioned Iceland as a potential spot for asylum.
The surveillance program rattled some foreign governments and some dissident and opposition groups in Asia. European lawmakers threatened to re-open data-sharing agreements with the United States if Washington has been using the programs to spy on Europeans.
In a heated debate in the European Parliament in Brussels, politicians said they had yielded to U.S. demands for access to European financial and travel data for a decade and it was now time to re-examine the deals and limit access.
“We need to step back here and say clearly: mass surveillance is not what we want,” said Jan Philipp Albrecht, a German Green member in charge of a planned overhaul of the European Union’s data protection laws.
Dissident and opposition groups in Asia, including three supported by the United States, said they were worried the data collected in the surveillance programs could someday be used against them.
Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Alina Selyukh, Patricia Zengerle and Andrea Shalal-esa in Washington, Claire Davenport in Brussels, James Pomfret in Hong Kong; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Tim Dobbyn