WASHINGTON, D.C.: The United States has launched a criminal investigation and is taking “all necessary steps” to prosecute Edward Snowden for exposing secret US surveillance programs, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director said on Thursday (Friday in Manila).
Robert Mueller, who is to step down soon after more than a decade leading the FBI, defended the Internet and phone sweeps as vital tools that could have prevented the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Snowden’s disclosures “have caused significant harm to our nation and to our safety,” Mueller told lawmakers at a House Judiciary Committee hearing.
As to Snowden, “he is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation,” Mueller said. “We are taking all necessary steps to hold the person responsible for these disclosures.”
Mueller’s comments confirm that the US government is pursuing Snowden, the 29-year-old American IT specialist who has admitted to leaking information about far-reaching surveillance programs.
Snowden, who worked as a subcontractor handling computer networks for the National Security Agency (NSA), is in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory, where he has vowed to contest any possible extradition in court.
Mueller defended the collection of US phone records and Internet data related to foreign targets, which officials maintain are legal programs approved by federal judges and in accordance with the Constitution.
“The program is set up for a very limited purpose and a limited objective, and that is to identify individuals in the United States who are using a telephone for terrorist activities and to draw that network,” he said.
Mueller told lawmakers that one of the 9/11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar, had called a known Al-Qaeda safe house in Yemen from the US city of San Diego.
“If we had had this program in place at the time, we would have been able to identify that particular telephone number in San Diego,” Mueller said.
“If we had the telephone number from Yemen we would have matched up to that telephone number in San Diego, got further legal process, identified al-Mihdhar.”
Many lawmakers remained skeptical. “It’s my fear we are on the verge of becoming a
surveillance state,” Democrat John Conyers said, alarmed at the scale and secrecy of the surveillance programs.
Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, told lawmakers on Wednesday that “dozens” of terror attacks had been thwarted by programs, and that the leaks had caused “great harm” to national security.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, said that the NSA on Monday will release the specific number of attacks prevented.
Some lawmakers opposed to the domestic surveillance techniques have demanded proof that the data collection yields results.
Snowden, a technician working for a private contractor and assigned to an NSA base in Hawaii, surfaced over the weekend in Hong Kong to give media interviews.
In addition to disclosing the NSA’s acquisition of phone logs and data from nine Internet giants—including Google, Microsoft and Facebook—Snowden also described secret global hacking operations.