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US ponders on charging spy leaker

The US government is considering whether to charge Edward Snowden with leaking classified surveillance secrets while it defends the broad spy programme it says keeps America safe from terrorists.

Facing a global uproar over the operations that track phone and Internet messages around the world, the Justice Department continued to investigate whether the disclosures of Mr Snowden, 29, an employee of government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, were criminal.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament planned to debate the spy programmes and whether they have violated local privacy protections.

The global scrutiny comes after revelations from Mr Snowden who has fled to Hong Kong in hopes of escaping criminal charges as politicians accuse him of committing an "act of treason" that should be prosecuted.

A senior US intelligence official said there were no plans to scrap the programmes that, despite the backlash, continue to receive widespread if cautious support within Congress.

The programmes were revealed last week by The Guardian and The Washington Post newspapers. National Intelligence Director James Clapper has taken the unusual step of declassifying some of the previously top-secret details to help the administration mount a public defence of the surveillance as a necessary step to protect Americans.

One of the National Security Agency programs gathers hundreds of millions of US phone records to search for possible links to known terrorist targets abroad. The other allows the government to tap into nine US internet companies and gather all communications to detect suspicious behaviour that begins overseas.

Mr Snowden is a former CIA employee who later worked as a contractor for the NSA on behalf of Booz Allen, where he gained access to the surveillance. The first explosive document he revealed was a top secret court order issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that granted a three-month renewal for a massive collection of American phone records. That order was signed April 25.

He also gave the Post and the Guardian a PowerPoint presentation on another secret program that collects online usage by the nine Internet providers. The US government says it uses that information only to track foreigners' use overseas.

Believing his role would soon be exposed, Snowden fled last month to Hong Kong. Although Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the US, the document has some exceptions, including for crimes deemed political. Any negotiations about his possible handover will involve Beijing, but some analysts believe China is unlikely to want to jeopardise its relationship with Washington over someone it would consider of little political interest. The Justice Department is investigating whether his disclosures were a criminal offence - a matter that is not always clear-cut under US federal law.

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