WASHINGTON – The United States has launched a criminal investigation and is taking “all necessary steps” to prosecute Edward Snowden for exposing secret U.S. surveillance programs, the chief of the FBI said Thursday.
Robert Mueller, who is to step down soon after more than a decade leading the Federal Bureau of Investigation, defended the Internet and phone sweeps under the projects known as PRISM and BLARNEY as vital tools that could have prevented the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“These disclosures have caused significant harm to our nation and to our safety,” Mueller told lawmakers at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee.
“As to the individual who has admitted to making these disclosures, he is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation,” he said. “We are taking all necessary steps to hold the person responsible for these disclosures.”
The FBI chief’s comments were the first explicit confirmation that the U.S. government is pursuing Snowden, the 29-year-old American IT specialist who has admitted to leaking information about America’s far-reaching surveillance programs.
Snowden, who worked as a subcontractor handling computer networks for the National Security Agency, 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 American phone records and Internet data related to foreign targets, which officials maintain were 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 made phone calls from San Diego to a known al-Qaida safe house in Yemen.
“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, however. Democrat John Conyers expressed alarm at the scale and secrecy of the surveillance programs, saying: “It’s my fear we are on the verge of becoming a surveillance state.”
Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency, told lawmakers on Wednesday that “dozens” of terrorist attacks had been thwarted by the programs and that the leaks had caused “great harm” to national security.
On Monday the NSA will release details about the specific number of attacks prevented, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate intelligence committee.
Some lawmakers opposed to the domestic surveillance techniques have demanded proof that the data collection yielded concrete results.
Snowden, a technician working for a private contractor and assigned to an NSA base in Hawaii, surfaced last 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, some targeting China.
U.S. officials have accused China of state-sponsored hacking targeting the military, infrastructure and corporations, charges denied by Beijing.