WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors have filed a sealed criminal complaint against Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked a trove of documents about top-secret surveillance programs, and the United States has asked Hong Kong to detain him on a provisional arrest warrant, according to U.S. officials.
Snowden was charged with espionage, theft and conversion of government property, the officials said.
The complaint was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, a jurisdiction where Snowden’s former employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, is headquartered and a district with a long track record of prosecuting cases with national security implications.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
Snowden flew to Hong Kong last month after leaving his job at an NSA facility in Hawaii with a collection of highly classified documents that he acquired while working at the agency as a systems analyst.
The documents, some of which have been published in The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper, detailed some of the most-secret surveillance operations undertaken by the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as classified legal memos and court orders underpinning the programs in the United States.
The 29-year-old intelligence analyst revealed himself June 9 as the leaker in an interview with the Guardian and said he went to Hong Kong because it provided him the ‘‘cultural and legal framework to allow me to work without being immediately detained.’’
Snowden subsequently disappeared from public view; it is thought that he is still in the Chinese territory. Hong Kong has its own legislative and legal systems but ultimately answers to Beijing, under the ‘‘one country, two systems’’ arrangement.
The leaks have sparked national and international debates about the secret powers of the NSA to infringe on the privacy of both Americans and foreigners. President Barack Obama and other federal officials have said they welcome the opportunity to explain the importance of the programs and the safeguards they say are built into them. Skeptics, including some in Congress, have said the NSA has assumed power to soak up data about Americans that was never intended under the law.
There was never any doubt that the Justice Department would seek to prosecute Snowden for one of the most significant national security leaks in the country’s history. The Obama administration has shown a particular propensity to go after leakers and has launched more investigations that any previous administration.
Justice Department officials had already said that a criminal investigation of Snowden was underway and was being run out of the FBI’s Washington field office in conjunction with lawyers from the department’s National Security Division.
By filing a criminal complaint, prosecutors have a legal basis to make the request of the authorities in Hong Kong. Prosecutors now have 60 days to file an indictment, probably also under seal, and can then move to have Snowden extradited from Hong Kong for trial in the United States.
Snowden, however, can fight the U.S. effort to have him extradited in the courts in Hong Kong. Any court battle is likely to reach Hong Kong’s highest court and could last many months, lawyers in the United States and Hong Kong said.
The United States has an extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and U.S. officials said cooperation with the Chinese territory, which enjoys some autonomy from Beijing, has been good in previous cases.
The treaty, however, has an exception for political offenses, and espionage has traditionally been treated as a political offense. Snowden’s defense team in Hong Kong is likely to invoke that part of the extradition treaty with the United States, which states that suspects will not be turned over to face criminal trial for offenses of a ‘‘political character.’’
Snowden could also remain in Hong Kong if the Chinese government decides that it is not in the defense or foreign policy interests of the government in Beijing to have him sent back to the United States for trial.
Snowden could also apply for asylum in Hong Kong or attempt to reach another jurisdiction and seek asylum there before the authorities in Hong Kong act.
The anti-secrecy group Wikileaks has held some discussions with officials in Iceland about providing asylum to Snowden. A businessman in Iceland has offered to fly Snowden on a chartered jet to his country if he is granted asylum there.
The chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, said last week that the city’s government would follow existing law if and when the U.S. government requested help.
‘‘When the relevant mechanism is activated, the Hong Kong [Special Administrative Region] Government will handle the case of Mr. Snowden in accordance with the laws and established procedures of Hong Kong,’’ Leung said in a statement.