This Sept. 19, 2007, photo shows the National Security Agency building at Fort Meade, Md. When the federal government went looking for phone numbers tied to terrorists, it grabbed the records of just about everyone in America. (Charles Dharapak / AP)
WASHINGTON — President 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. 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. British Foreign Secretary William Hague tried 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.
“There’s very little trust in the government, and that’s for good reason,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who sits on the House Intelligence Committee. “We’re our own worst enemy.”
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, an independent from 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters Monday that Chancellor Angela Merkel would question 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.
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.” 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.
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.