A fierce debate about Internet privacy and the limits of US executive power erupted on Tuesday in a victory for the intelligence technician at the center of a global leak storm.
While Edward Snowden, 29, has gone underground in Hong Kong and may yet face legal action for blowing the lid on Washington’s vast Internet snooping program, he has triggered the public battle he said 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 US 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 US Senator Jeff Merkley, one of eight senators proposing a bill to increase transparency.
“Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the [US] government believes it’s allowed to take under the law,” he said, adding this could be done without “tipping our hand to our enemies.”
Snowden’s leaks to the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers last week revealed PRISM, a top-secret program of the US National Security Agency (NSA) used to collect and analyze data from Internet users around the world.
US intelligence chiefs insist the sweep has saved US lives by helping agents thwart terror plots and an investigation has been opened that may see Snowden extradited from Hong Kong to face charges.
Yet many inside and outside the US 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.
Under these acts, 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.
On Tuesday, Google wrote to the US Department of Justice asking for permission to release figures on its surrender of data to surveillance programs in order to head off reports that it has given the government a back door to its servers.
The letter, signed by Google 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.”
Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth warned other governments could “see US practice as a green light for their own secret surveillance programs,” tarnishing the US’ credibility on the issue of Internet freedom.
Separately, a coalition of Internet and rights groups including the Mozilla Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union, Greenpeace USA, the World Wide Web Foundation and more than 80 more also demanded more openness.
The groups launched a Web site, StopWatching.us, and urged the US Congress to launch a full probe.
“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 union also launched a separate law suit alleging that another spy program unveiled by Snowden, one in which the phone records of millions of US citizens were seized, was unconstitutional.
However, the debate about PRISM and about Snowden’s actions is not one-sided. Popular daily USA Today summed up the Snowden question neatly in a front-page headline: “A hero, or is he a traitor?”
US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has described the leaks as gravely damaging and inquiries are under way by the Justice Department and the intelligence community.
While Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chairwoman Dianne Feinstein branded the leak an “act of treason,” 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.
Snowden, a technician working for 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.
He gave a video interview to the Guardian in a hotel to explain his motives, but has since checked out and his wherabouts are 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.”