US intel leak sparks fierce Internet freedom debate

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A fierce debate about Internet privacy and the limits of US executive power erupted on Tuesday in a victory for the young intelligence technician at the centre of a global leak storm.

While 29-year-old Edward Snowden has gone to ground in Hong Kong and may yet face severe legal consequences for blowing the lid on Washington's vast Internet snooping programme, 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 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 Jeff Merkley, one of eight senators proposing a bill to increase transparency.

"Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it's allowed to take under the law," he said, arguing this could be done without "tipping our hand to our enemies."

Snowden's leaks last week to the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers revealed PRISM, a top secret programme of the US National Security Agency to collect and analyse private data from Internet users around the world.

US intelligence chiefs insist the sweep has saved American lives by helping agents thwart terror plots, and authorities have opened an investigation that could see the contractor extradited from Hong Kong to face charges.

But many inside and outside the United States 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, 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, and last week's leak embarrassed the web giants.

On Tuesday, Google wrote to the US Justice Department asking for permission to release figures on its surrender of data to surveillance programmes in order to head off reports it has given the government a back door to its servers.

The letter, signed by Google's 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.

"However, government non-disclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation."

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 website, StopWatching.us, and called on Congress to launch a full investigation into the PRISM leaks.

"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.

But the debate about PRISM - and about Snowden's actions - is not one sided. Popular daily USA Today summed up the Snowden question neatly in its front page headline: "A hero, or is he a traitor?" President Barack Obama's spy chief, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, has described the leaks as gravely damaging to security.

And Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate intelligence committee, branded the leak an "act of treason." Mr Obama has defended the intelligence programme, but has not addressed the issue since Snowden outed himself as the source of the leak. On Tuesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney refused to say whether Mr Obama regarded him as a traitor.

"I won't characterise him or his status. We believe it is the appropriate posture to take to let the investigation move forward," he said.

Mr Snowden, a technician working for the private defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton subcontracted to the NSA, travelled from Hawaii to Hong Kong on May 20 carrying a cache of secrets harvested from his employer's servers.

He gave a video interview to the Guardian newspaper in a hotel to explain his motivation but has since checked out and his new location is a mystery, although the paper's Washington bureau chief said he was still in the city.

"I probably suspect there will be a long drawn-out legal process here in Hong Kong," Ewen MacAskill told CNN. "Maybe the Chinese will take him."

Mr Snowden said he chose Hong Kong as a refuge as it has a "strong tradition of free speech," but the semi-autonomous Chinese region also has an extradition treaty with the Washington, which Beijing may not wish to anger.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said Russia would consider an asylum request if one were made.

Snowden had 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".

Under PRISM, according to the leaked documents, the NSA can issue directives to Internet firms to gain access to private emails, online chats, pictures, files, videos and more, uploaded by foreign users.