Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor whose leak of agency documents has set off a national debate over the proper limits of government surveillance, has been charged with violating the Espionage Act and stealing government property for disclosing classified information to the Guardian and the Washington Post, the Justice Department said Friday.
Each of the three charges unsealed Friday carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years, for a total of 30 years. Snowden is likely to be indicted, and additional counts may well be added. In addition to the theft charge, the two charges under the Espionage Act include “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.” Communications intelligence is the technical term for eavesdropping and other electronic intercepts.
The charges were filed June 14 by federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia, which handles many national security cases. US officials said they have asked the authorities in Hong Kong, where Snowden is believed to be in hiding, to detain him while an indictment and an extradition request are prepared. The attempt to extradite him is likely to produce a long legal battle whose outcome is uncertain. The extradition treaty between the United States and Hong Kong includes an exception for political offenses, and Snowden could argue that his prosecution is political in nature.
Hong Kong has limited autonomy, but matters involving national security and foreign policy are controlled by the Chinese government in Beijing, whose view of the possible extradition of Snowden is unclear. Last week, hundreds of people turned out in the rain for a protest outside the US Consulate in Hong Kong demanding that officials not cooperate with any US extradition request. The Global Times, a mainland newspaper controlled by the Communist Party, called an extradition of Snowden an “inconceivable option.”
The charges against Snowden, first reported by the Washington Post, are the seventh case under President Obama in which a government official has been criminally charged with leaking classified information to the news media. Under all previous presidents, just three such cases have been brought.
Snowden, who turned 30 on Friday, fled to Hong Kong last month, carrying four laptops, after leaving his job at the NSA’s eavesdropping station in Hawaii. He has given hundreds of highly classified documents to the Guardian, the British newspaper, which has been writing a series of revelatory articles about American and British eavesdropping, and a smaller number to the Post.
Snowden’s disclosures have opened an unprecedented window on the details of surveillance by the NSA, including its compilation of logs of virtually all telephone calls in the United States and its collection of e-mails of foreigners from the major American Internet companies, including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, and Skype.
Snowden, who has said he was shocked by what he believed to be the NSA’s invasion of Americans’ and foreigners’ privacy, told the Guardian that he leaked the documents because he believed the limits of surveillance should be decided not by government officials in secret but by US citizens.
US officials have said his disclosures have done serious damage to national security by giving terrorists and others information on how to evade the intelligence net.
Snowden’s supporters, including some associated with the antisecrecy organization WikiLeaks, have approached officials in Iceland on his behalf to inquire about whether he might be granted asylum there. Iceland’s Ministry of the Interior, however, said in a statement that he must be present in the country in order to file an asylum application.
An Icelandic businessman with ties to WikiLeaks, Olafur Vignir Sigurvinsson, has told reporters that he has private aircraft on standby, prepared to fly Snowden to Iceland. But the American charges and detention request may short-circuit any attempt to reach Iceland.
In the latest installment of the Snowden disclosures Friday, the Guardian reported that the NSA’s British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters has tapped into hundreds of fiber-optic communications lines and is sharing a vast quantity of e-mail and Internet traffic with US intelligence.
The disclosures immediately raised a question of whether the NSA might be able to get around US privacy laws. An NSA spokeswoman said the agency does not use foreign partners to evade American privacy restrictions.