A criminal investigation has been launched by the United States, with “all necessary steps” being taken to prosecute Edward Snowden for exposing secret US surveillance programmes, the director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has said.
“As to the individual who has admitted to making these disclosures, he is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation,” FBI Director Robert Mueller told the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
“These disclosures have caused significant harm to our nation and to our safety. We are taking all necessary steps to hold the person responsible for these disclosures,” he said.
The FBI chief’s comments offered the first explicit confirmation that the US government was pursuing Snowden, the 29-year-old American IT specialist who has admitted to leaking information about far-reaching surveillance programmes.
Snowden, who worked as a sub-contractor handling computer networks for the National Security Agency (NSA), is now in Hong Kong, where he has vowed to contest any US attempt to extradite him. He also made mention of seeking asylum in Iceland.
He has said he plans to request asylum and that he divulged secrets to Britain’s Guardian newspaper and the US-based Washington Post because he believed the US surveillance programmes were illegal and intrusive.
Mueller strongly defended the surveillance programmes, arguing that they had helped to protect US citizens and that leaking information on them harms US national security.
In his last appearance as FBI director before the committee, Mueller said that terrorists track leaked information “very, very closely” and that because of leaks “we lose our ability to get their communications” and “we are exceptionally vulnerable”.
Responding to questions by committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican, Mueller said the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has approved the surveillance programmes and they have been conducted in compliance with US law and with oversight from Congress.
The revelation that the NSA is collecting millions of US phone records along with digital communications stored by nine major Internet companies has touched off a national debate over whether the Obama administration, in its efforts to thwart terrorism, has overstepped proper bounds by using intrusive surveillance methods.
John Conyers, the committee’s top Democrat, expressed concern that the two programmes were too far-reaching.
“It’s my fear that we are on the verge of becoming a surveillance state,” he said.
An IT specialist based in New York said he saw nothing wrong in the NSA surveillance programme. According to him, “As far as we want to prove the government has gone too far in its fight against terrorism, we should have it at the back of our minds that there are always backdoors people take-terrorists can use these backdoors and access/transmit information that may harm the country if the government’s surveillance programme is not good enough.”