Embarrassed by national security leaks of historic proportions, the White House rebutted accusations Monday by the disillusioned former government contractor who leaked the surveillance secrets that President Obama is no different from President George W. Bush in his anti-terrorism tactics.
As a debate raged over whether the leaker, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, is a hero or a criminal, White House spokesman Jay Carney said there was no reason for Mr. Snowden to have been disappointed in Mr. Obama.
“The president’s record on making the kinds of changes that he promised he would make to the ways that we pursue our fight against al Qaeda and our fight against terrorists and extremists, he has lived up to,” Mr. Carney said.
Mr. Snowden, 29, who donated $500 to the 2012 presidential campaign of libertarian Ron Paul, said he leaked information about the top-secret government surveillance programs because Mr. Obama perpetuated what he considers overly invasive tactics from the Bush administration for hunting terrorists.
“I believed in Obama’s promises,” Mr. Snowden told Britain’s Guardian newspaper. “He continued with the policies of his predecessor. I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded.”
Among the data he released were details of an Internet monitoring program called Prism, which had the ability to retrieve large quantities of information from companies such as Google and Facebook. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper has said the disclosures have harmed America’s ability to hunt down terrorism suspects, and lawmakers in Washington have called the extradition and prosecution of the former CIA employee.
The White House, while refusing to comment on Mr. Snowden’s actions, rejected the notion that Mr. Obama’s policies were valid provocation for the unprecedented disclosure of national security secrets.
Mr. Carney said in four key areas — enhanced interrogation of terrorism suspects, the war in Iraq, the detainee center at Guantanamo Bay and warrantless wiretapping — Mr. Obama has lived up to his campaign promises to end Bush-era policies.
“In every case … this president’s policy has been different,” Mr. Carney said. “When it comes to Guantanamo Bay, as you know, the president has sought to close that facility,” though Congress has thwarted efforts by Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush to do so.
“He has ended torture. … The president has ended the war in Iraq,” Mr. Carney said.
As for the wide-ranging monitoring of Internet data and the seizure of millions of citizens’ phone records under the Obama administration, Mr. Carney said the surveillance has involved judicial and congressional review and oversight.
But the American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion Monday with the secret court that oversees government surveillance in national security cases, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, requesting that it publish its opinions on the meaning, scope, and constitutionality of the section of the USA Patriot Act that authorizes such seizures.
That section, which authorizes the government to obtain “any tangible thing” relevant to foreign-intelligence or terrorism investigations, was the legal basis an order requiring Verizon to turn over data on phone calls for three months. Lawmakers and counterterrorism specialists say the program almost certainly was broader in scope and time than that.
“The ultimate check on governmental overreach is the American people,” said Alexander Abdo, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. “The government appears to have secretly given itself shockingly broad surveillance powers, thereby depriving the public of the chance to weigh in on the wisdom of an unprecedented invasion of privacy.”
Mr. Snowden carried on his war of words with the administration from Hong Kong, where he fled to seek asylum as calls intensified for his extradition to the U.S. The Justice Department and intelligence agencies are conducting a review of the leaks to decide whether a criminal probe should be opened.
Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence, demanded Mr. Snowden’s extradition. “The United States government must prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law,” Mr. King said in a statement.
Mr. Snowden’s latest employer, defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, promised in a statement to cooperate with any investigation.
The U.S. and Hong Kong signed an extradition treaty in 1996, a year before the former British colony was returned to China as a special administrative region. It allows for the exchange of criminal suspects in a process that also may involve the Chinese government, which has been widely accused of engaging in cyberespionage.
Under the treaty, Hong Kong authorities can hold Mr. Snowden for 60 days after a U.S. request that includes probable cause for his extradition. But Beijing could order Hong Kong officials not to surrender Mr. Snowden, citing “defense, foreign affairs or essential public interest or policy” reasons, per the treaty.
The Chinese also could refuse to turn over Mr. Snowden to U.S. authorities if they believe an extradition request is “politically motivated” or is designed to punish a suspect for “political opinion,” or if they believe complying would deny him a fair trial, according to the treaty.
According to The Associated Press in Hong Kong, Mr. Snowden checked out of the Mira Hotel on Monday and his whereabouts was unknown.
Glenn Greenwald, the columnist at The Guardian who first reported the NSA and Prism programs last week and who profiled and identified Mr. Snowden, the former intelligence contractor “doesn’t really trust the judicial system in the United States to give him a fair trial.”
“I think if he trusted the political system and the political culture in the United States he would have just remained there and said ‘I did what I did and I want to defend it,’” Mr. Greenwald said.
The NSA and Prism flaps will affect U.S. foreign relations on another front — with privacy-conscious governments in Western Europe, many of whose citizens use such Prism-targeted American companies as Google and Apple for Internet and related services.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin on Monday that Chancellor Angela Merkel would raise the programs with Mr. Obama when he visits Berlin on June 18. Germany’s Interior Ministry said it had queried U.S. officials on the programs’ effect on German citizens.
Support was growing for Mr. Snowden in other quarters, including an online forum operated by the White House. More than 26,000 people had signed a petition for Mr. Obama to pardon Mr. Snowden by 5 p.m. Monday, a day after the petition was created.
“Edward Snowden is a national hero and should be immediately issued a full, free and absolute pardon for any crimes he has committed or may have committed related to blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs,” the petition states.
The White House doesn’t respond to petitions with fewer than 100,000 signatures, but the petition for Mr. Snowden was relatively popular. Another petition, requesting that alleged WikiLeaks suspect Bradley Manning be set free, has collected about 1,600 signatures in the week since it was posted on the White House site.