WASHINGTON: The Justice Department has charged former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden with espionage and theft of government property in the NSA surveillance case.
Snowden, believed to be holed up in Hong Kong, has admitted providing information to the news media about two highly classified NSA surveillance programs.
A one-page criminal complaint unsealed Friday in federal court in Alexandria, Va., says Snowden engaged in unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information. Both are charges under the Espionage Act. Snowden also is charged with theft of government property. All three crimes carry a maximum 10-year prison penalty.
The federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia where the complaint was filed is headquarters for Snowden’s former employer, government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.
The complaint is dated June 14, five days after Snowden’s name first surfaced as the leaker of information about the two programs in which the NSA gathered telephone and Internet records to ferret out terror plots.
The complaint could become an integral part of a U.S. government effort to have Snowden extradited from Hong Kong, a process that could turn into a prolonged legal battle. Snowden could contest extradition on grounds of political persecution. In general, the extradition agreement between the U.S. and Hong Kong excepts political offenses from the obligation to turn over a person.
It was unclear late Friday whether the U.S. had made an extradition request. Hong Kong had no immediate reaction to word of the charges against Snowden, first reported by The Washington Post.
The Espionage Act arguably is a political offense. The Obama administration has now used the act in eight criminal cases in an unprecedented effort to stem leaks. In one of them, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning acknowledged he sent more than 700,000 battlefield reports, diplomatic cables and other materials to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. His military trial is underway.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, welcomed the charges against Snowden. “I’ve always thought this was a treasonous act,” he said in a statement. “I hope Hong Kong’s government will take him into custody and extradite him to the U.S.”
But the Government Accountability Project, a whistle-blower advocacy organization, said Snowden should be shielded from prosecution by whistle-blower protection laws. “He disclosed information about a secret program that he reasonably believed to be illegal, and his actions alone brought about the long-overdue national debate about the proper balance between privacy and civil liberties, on the one hand, and national security on the other,” the group said in a statement.