By Jeremy Herb - 06/11/13 10:00 AM EDT
National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is guilty of treason, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Monday.
“I don’t look at this as being a whistle-blower,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calf.) said. “I think it’s an act of treason.”
The whereabouts of Snowden were unclear Monday as authorities ramped up an investigation that could lead to his extradition and prosecution.
Republican lawmakers urged the Obama administration to extradite Snowden “at the earliest date” possible, after he revealed on Sunday that he was responsible for one of the largest intelligence leaks in U.S. history.
Democrats like Feinstein also said the source behind the leak of the NSA’s Internet and phone surveillance programs must be prosecuted.
“He took an oath — that oath is important,” she said. “He violated the oath, he violated the law. It’s an act of treason in my view.”
Snowden was said to be in Hong Kong when he revealed himself as the source, but on Monday he had checked out of his hotel there, according to reports.
“I hope we follow Mr. Snowden to the ends of the earth to bring him to justice,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted on Monday.
“I would prosecute him,” House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said Monday on Fox News. “If you are a whistle-blower, you don’t leave the United States. You don’t go to a communist country.”
But the White House is also getting pressure from liberals and libertarians who have criticized the NSA’s spying programs and want Snowden to be pardoned.
A petition on the White House’s “We the People” website had generated more than 25,000 signatures in fewer than 24 hours, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee launched a campaign to raise funds for Snowden’s legal team.
“Edward Snowden is a national hero and should be immediately issued a [sic] 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 White House petition states.
If the Snowden petition gathers 100,000 signatures in the next month — a likely outcome — it could garner an official response from the White House.
White House press secretary Jay Carney would not comment Monday on the petition or the investigation into Snowden.
“I won’t comment specifically on an individual or his status. We obviously await a threshold being crossed and that threshold has not been crossed,” Carney said.
The Obama administration also faces a tricky set of political circumstances in the international arena if it seeks to extradite Snowden from Hong Kong.
The United States entered into an extradition treaty in 1998 with Hong Kong, but because it is a “special administrative region” of China, Beijing could potentially intervene.
On Monday, Carney would only say that an investigation into the leak was underway, and he would not comment beyond that.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that the disclosures about surveillance could risk “potentially long-lasting and irreversible harm to our ability to identify and respond to the many threats facing our nation.” His spokesman said Sunday that the intelligence community was “currently reviewing the damage that has been done by these recent disclosures.”
National security experts said they expected the White House would take an aggressive stance toward Snowden in order to deter others from leaking classified information.
“I think the Obama administration has to throw the book at this guy, because if they don’t, it’s an encouragement to other leakers who may do really serious damage,” said Loren Thompson, an analyst at the Lexington Institute.
Gordon Schnell, an attorney at Constantine Cannon who specializes in whistle-blowers and the law, said that going to the press cost Snowden any chance of being protected by laws for whistle-blowers.
“I’m a little baffled why he did it this way, knowing full well he was going to get into a lot of trouble,” he said.
By revealing himself, Snowden also removed a political headache for the Obama administration. Officials at the Justice Department have come under fire for monitoring the communications of reporters in leak investigations and were facing the prospect of having to do so again.
Now the administration likely won’t have to run an investigation into Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald or Washington Post reporter Bart Gellman, according to Robert Chesney, a Brookings Institution analyst and law professor at the University of Texas.
“Harassing [the reporters] would definitely cause pushback,” Chensey said. “They can avoid the sensitive terrain of silencing the press and focus on government employees.”
Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, said he was concerned that the questions surrounding the implications of NSA programs on privacy would get lost in the push to prosecute — or pardon — Snowden.
“These issues touch on fundamental questions of privacy and on constitutional values, and therefore they are properly in the public domain. They need to be publicly aired,” Aftergood said. “I wish that leaks were not the occasion for this debate.”