Updated 7:20 p.m. ET Monday 6/10
Washington (CNN) - A progressive group upset with news about the breadth of the Obama Administration's surveillance efforts started raising money Monday to help self-confessed leaker Edward Snowden's legal defense.
Snowden admitted Sunday he leaked information to The Guardian and The Washington Post about the large, classified telephone and internet surveillance programs aimed at thwarting terrorism.
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The Progressive Change Campaign Committee announced the initiative with an e-mail from Stephen Kohn, the executive director of the National Whistleblower Center, which has represented federal employees in the past. Kohn lent his support with the e-mail but is not involved otherwise in pushing the effort.
David Colapinto, an official with the center, said the center is not legally representing Snowden. "We have not been in touch" with him, Colapinto told CNN. PCCC officials also said they have not been in contact with Snowden, according to spokesman Matt Wall.
"Edward Snowden revealed the elements of a crime. That makes him a whistleblower, and he deserves our full support," stated the e-mail sent to the committee's almost 1 million members. "Whistleblowers with Mr. Snowden's courage must be fully protected - not prosecuted. I've defended whistleblower cases, and fighting government prosecution is incredibly expensive. This hero will need our support," continued the e-mail from Kohn. Any money raised by the PCCC would be sent to a group organizing a formal legal defense fund.
Intelligence and government officials, who have specifically not commented on Snowden since he revealed himself, said the person responsible for the divulging of the information is not a whistleblower but a criminal who violated federal law by leaking information about these highly classified programs. The Justice Department and FBI have launched a criminal investigation of the leaks.
Before his identity was known, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was asked if the leaker was a whistleblower. "There are legitimate outlets for anyone within the Intelligence Community who feels that some law is being violated, for reporting fraud, waste and abuse, and there are legitimate mechanisms for reporting that both within the Executive and in the Congress without damaging national security. And for whatever reason, a person or persons doing this chose not to use those legitimate outlets," Clapper told MSNBC on Saturday.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Monday said "When you, you know, divulge information that provides a playbook, if you will, to how we - to efforts that this government undertakes to counter the efforts of those who would kill Americans or attack the United States in some ways or our allies, you're assisting them in evading those measures."
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, had some stronger words about Snowden.
“This is an act of treason. This is deliberately taking highly, highly super-compartmented classified information and giving it directly out," the senator said Monday. "He ought to be prosecuted under the law. Extradited and prosecuted. We cannot have national security if our secrets cannot be kept.”
Asked later Monday if Snowden's actions amounted to treason, Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the ranking member of the Senate intelligence committee, said "if it's not, it's pretty damn close."
Some legal experts also said Snowden also probably broke the law by violating a non-disclosure agreement he most likely would have signed.
As of Monday afternoon, 24,000 people had signed a petition on the White House website asking for Snowden to be pardoned for any crimes he may have committed "related to blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs."
Snowden himself described his motivation in the interview with The Guardian. "When you see everything, you see them on a more frequent basis, and you recognize that some of these things are actually abuses, and when you talk to people about them, in a place like this where this is the normal state of business, people tend not to take them very seriously and move on from them, but over time that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up, and you feel compelled to talk about it," he said. "The more you talk about it, the more you're ignored, the more you're told it's not a problem, until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public, not by somebody who was simply hired by the government."
When news of the telephone and internet surveillance programs broke last week, the PCCC started a petition campaign calling them "unacceptable," with 29,000 signing it already.
– CNN's Ted Barrett contributed to this report.