WASHINGTON -- WikiLeaks activists in Iceland are discussing with government officials there the possibility of asylum for Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who disclosed hundreds of classified documents on NSA surveillance, Julian Assange, the founder of the anti-secrecy group, said Wednesday.
"We are in touch with Mr. Snowden's legal team and are in the process of brokering his asylum in Iceland," Mr. Assange said in London in a conference call with reporters. He said both the legal and practical obstacles were under review by Mr. Snowden's lawyers and supporters.
A spokeswoman for Iceland's embassy in Washington confirmed that the government had been approached by advocates for Mr. Snowden, but she would not comment further.
Mr. Snowden, 29, whose leak of NSA documents has shaken U.S. officials and fueled a public debate about government surveillance, is believed to be in hiding in Hong Kong. He has acknowledged that he is likely to be prosecuted for the unauthorized disclosures and has expressed both interest in asylum in Iceland and concern about whether he would be safe there.
U.S. officials have confirmed that Mr. Snowden is under investigation, but he has not been charged publicly. Indictments are sometimes kept secret under seal to avoid alerting the defendant.
Mr. Assange himself understands the complications of hiding out from possible criminal prosecution. As of Wednesday, he had spent a year in Ecuador's embassy in London, where he fled to avoid being sent to Sweden to face questioning in a sexual offense investigation. He and WikiLeaks are the subjects in a separate leak inquiry by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., and he has expressed concern that Sweden might send him to the United States to face charges.
Christopher Blakesley, a University of Nevada Las Vegas law professor, said Iceland "would be a smart choice" for Mr. Snowden, because authorities there have shown sympathy for the cause of freedom of information and might act favorably on his asylum request.
Obama administration officials, meanwhile, are discussing whether the most contentious NSA program revealed by Mr. Snowden -- the agency's routine collection of data on most phone calls made in the United States -- might be changed to mollify critics who believe that it invades Americans' privacy. One proposal would require the phone companies to store the call data for five years and make it available to government investigators.
But FBI director Robert Mueller warned Wednesday that such a change would slow investigators as they seek to stop terrorist attacks. "The point being that it will take an awful long time," he told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The NSA director, Gen. Keith Alexander, hinted Tuesday at a House hearing that he was evaluating changes to the domestic calling log program and raised the issue of "speed in crisis" as a major disadvantage.
In his testimony Wednesday, Mr. Mueller provided more details about why national security officials were wary of changing the system. First, he said, under current law companies are not required to retain such records, and some dispose of them in much less than five years. Second, rather than being able to instantly query the complete database to see who a suspect has been in contact with, investigators would have to present legal paperwork to a half-dozen carriers and wait for them to gather and provide the records.
"In this particular area, where you're trying to prevent terrorist attacks, what you want is that information as to whether or not that number in Yemen is in contact with somebody in the United States almost instantaneously, so you can prevent that attack," Mr. Mueller said. "You cannot wait three months, six months, a year to get that information, be able to collate it and put it together."
He did not explain why it would take so long for phone companies to respond to a subpoena for phone data tied to a particular number, especially in a national security investigation.
Lawmakers also pressed Mr. Mueller to explain what attacks, if any, had been prevented by the NSA surveillance programs Mr. Snowden disclosed.
Mr. Mueller referred -- in greater detail than was provided at Tuesday's hearing -- to newly declassified information linking the program to a case in which several men in San Diego were discovered to have sent about $8,500 to al-Shabab, a terrorist group in Somalia. Specifically, he said, the NSA identified a terrorist-linked phone number in East Africa and ran the number against the domestic calls database, finding that the suspect number had been in contact with a San Diego phone number. Investigators then used other legal authorities to find the name and address of the person who used the line in San Diego, and then obtained an individual warrant to start monitoring that line.
But two Democratic senators who have been especially critical of the phone records collection, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado, disputed intelligence officials' assertions that the program has been critical in thwarting terrorist attacks. "We have yet to see any evidence that the bulk phone records collection program has provided any otherwise unobtainable intelligence," they said in a statement.
Also Wednesday, the chairman of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a federal panel that is reviewing the NSA programs, said members next month would sponsor a public discussion of the issues raised. "Based on what we've learned so far, we believe further questions are warranted," said David Medine, the board's chairman, who was confirmed by the Senate in May and almost immediately faced the NSA monitoring debate.
Intelligence officials last week briefed the five-member board on the programs. Mr. Medine said his board planned eventually to issue a public report and recommendations on the NSA programs.