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 FBI director said Thursday.
“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 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 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 American phone records and Internet data related to foreign targets, which officials were legal programs and were approved by a judge and were in accordance with the Constitution.
He added that the government was determined to safeguard privacy rights and civil liberties even as it seeks to prevent possible terrorist attacks.
General Keith Alexander, the head of the National Security Agency, told lawmakers on Wednesday that “dozens” of terror attacks had been thwarted by programs that gather and analyze massive amounts of Internet and phone data.
Alexander, who also heads the US Cyber Command, said the leaks about the programs had caused “great harm” to national security.
Snowden, a technician working for a private contractor and assigned to an NSA base in Hawaii, disappeared last month after downloading a cache of secret documents and 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, some targeting China.
Snowden told the South China Morning Post there had been more than 61,000 NSA hacking operations globally, targeting powerful “network backbones” that can yield access to hundreds of thousands of individual computers.
There were hundreds of targets in mainland China and Hong Kong, he was quoted as saying by the Hong Kong daily.
Snowden said his revelations had exposed “the hypocrisy of the US government when it claims that it does not target civilian infrastructure.”
The US administration has said that while the NSA did gather large quantities of telephone metadata, it could not mine the logs to target a specific user without authorization from a secret court.
And it has said the Internet monitoring program did not target Americans or even foreigners on US soil.
China has said little on the case, and on Thursday appeared to keep its distance.
“I have no information to offer,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing when asked about Snowden.
Hua dodged questions about whether Washington had approached Beijing seeking Snowden’s extradition, and how China would react if Snowden applied for asylum.
Chinese state media has also remained relatively quiet on the case, but the government-owned China Daily said on Thursday that news of the US program “is certain to stain Washington’s overseas image and test developing Sino-US ties.”
“How the case is handled could pose a challenge to the burgeoning goodwill between Beijing and Washington given that Snowden is in Chinese territory and the Sino-US relationship is constantly soured on cybersecurity,” it said.
US officials have accused China of state-sponsored hacking targeting the military, infrastructure and corporations, charges denied by Beijing, which insists China is itself the target of considerable foreign cyberattacks.