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NSA aftershocks: Leak inspires lawsuit, letters of protest

U.S. spying operations spark a legal challenge and an effort in the Senate to declassify secret court orders, as the Justice Department prepares to file charges against leak source Edward Snowden.

June 11, 2013|By Shashank Bengali, Michael A. Memoli and Jessica Guynn, Washington Bureau
  • “Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it’s allowed to take under the law,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), coauthor of a bill to declassify significant opinions from the FISA court.
“Americans deserve to know how much information about their private… (Bill Clark, Roll Call )

WASHINGTON — The massive leaks about U.S. spying systems caused sharp political and legal aftershocks Tuesday as the Justice Department prepared to file criminal charges against Edward Snowden, a government contractor who has publicly admitted disclosing highly classified telephone and Internet data-gathering operations.

The vast scope of the government surveillance sparked the first federal lawsuit challenging its legality, a bipartisan effort in the Senate to declassify secret court orders that authorize the operations, and requests from Google and Facebook for permission to disclose more about National Security Agency requests for users' emails and other online communications.

Mozilla, the nonprofit organization behind the popular Firefox Web browser, and 85 other organizations and companies launched a campaign encouraging online users to email Congress with a pre-written letter demanding the government unveil "the full extent of the NSA's spying programs."

"As users, we don't have good ways of knowing whether the current system is being abused because it's all happening behind closed doors," Mozilla explained.

The fallout came as Booz Allen Hamilton, a major government contractor for defense and intelligence systems, said it had fired Snowden "for violations of the firm's code of ethics and firm policy." He had worked three months for Booz Allen as a computer systems administrator at an NSA Threat Operations Center outside Honolulu.

Booz Allen said Snowden was earning a salary "at a rate of $122,000." Snowden said last week that he made $200,000 a year, but that may have included overtime pay or bonuses.

His whereabouts were unknown Tuesday, a day after he checked out of a hotel in Hong Kong. U.S. authorities do not know his location, according to a member of Congress who was briefed on the case.

Authorities in Hong Kong and in China, which has administered the territory on a self-rule basis since the 1997 British hand-over, declined to comment on Snowden's case. But local officials are unlikely to get involved publicly with their most famous fugitive unless the United States issues a warrant for his arrest.

"The Hong Kong government will do nothing until the U.S. government takes steps to have him brought back," said Martin Lee, a democracy activist and prominent lawyer.

Justice Department officials said they were moving to finalize charges against Snowden. Given the disclosures, and his own admissions, he is likely to face numerous counts of mishandling and disclosing classified information, and perhaps more serious charges.

The Obama administration fears the 29-year-old computer technician may already have given reporters additional intelligence secrets as part of his self-described campaign to prevent overly intrusive government spying. He also said he sought to spark a national debate about privacy and national security — and that appeared to gather steam Tuesday.

In Washington, NSA Director Keith Alexander briefed a closed meeting of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the full House was invited to attend a closed-door briefing with senior officials from the NSA, FBI, Justice Department and other agencies.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the officials were pushed to explain why the NSA collected records of every telephone call.

"One of the things that was said ... was, 'Why do you need all of those numbers in a database?' And they said, 'To find a needle in a haystack, you need a haystack.'"

Some lawmakers said they expect a push to review who and how many individuals are granted high-level security clearances. Snowden, a high school dropout who entered the intelligence services as a security guard, was able to access a vast trove of national security secrets.

A bipartisan group of eight senators introduced legislation to declassify significant opinions from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The 11-member court meets in secret session to review applications for secret wiretaps, data mining and other surveillance systems used by intelligence agencies.

Recent disclosures to the media included an order from the court marked "Top Secret." It required Verizon to hand over to the NSA on a "daily, ongoing" basis all of its telephone records for domestic and foreign calls for a three-month period. Lawmakers later said the program had operated nonstop for seven years.

"Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it's allowed to take under the law," said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the bill's coauthor.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he doubted the legislation would advance.

"The whole point is to have judicial oversight without telling their enemies," he said. "Why don't we just take ads out in the paper and tell Al Qaeda, 'This is the way we're following you around. If you have any problems call us, this is the number.'"

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