WASHINGTON: The United States has filed espionage charges against Edward Snowden, a former US National Security Agency contractor who admitted revealing secret surveillance programs to media outlets, according to a court document made public on Friday.
The charges are the government’s first step in what could be a long legal battle to return Snowden from Hong Kong, where he is believed to be in hiding, and try him in a US court. A Hong Kong newspaper said he was under police protection, but the territory’s authorities declined to comment.
Snowden was charged with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person, said the criminal complaint, which was dated June 14.
The latter two offenses fall under the US Espionage Act and carry penalties of fines and up to 10 years in prison.
A single page of the complaint was unsealed on Friday. An accompanying affidavit remained under seal.
Two US sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States was preparing to seek Snowden’s extradition from Hong Kong, which is part of China but has wide-ranging autonomy, including an independent judiciary.
The Washington Post, which first reported the criminal complaint earlier on Friday, said the United States had asked Hong Kong to detain Snowden on a provisional arrest warrant.
A Hong Kong’s Chinese-language newspaper quoted police sources as saying that anti-terrorism officers had contacted Snowden, arranged a safe house for him and provided protection. However, another paper said Snowden was not in police protection but was in a “safe place” in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong Police Commissioner Andy Tsang declined to comment other than to say Hong Kong would deal with the case in accordance with the law.
Snowden earlier this month admitted leaking secrets about classified US surveillance programs, creating a public uproar. Supporters say he is a whistleblower, while critics call him a criminal and perhaps even a traitor.
He disclosed documents detailing US telephone and Internet surveillance efforts to the Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
A newspaper report said yesterday Snowden had divulged information to the newspaper showing how computers in Hong Kong and China had been targeted.
Sources say documents and statements by Snowden show the NSA program had hacked major Chinese telecoms companies to access text messages, attacked China’s top Tsinghua University, and hacked the Hong Kong headquarters of Pacnet, which has an extensive fiber optic submarine network.