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 (local time) in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, said Snowden engaged in unauthorised communication of national defence information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information.
Both were charges under the Espionage Act. Snowden also was charged with theft of government property. All three crimes carried a maximum 10-year prison penalty.
The federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia where the complaint was filed was headquarters for Snowden’s former employer, government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.
The complaint was 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 was an integral part of the US government’s 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 US and Hong Kong excepts political offences from the obligation to turn over a person.
Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, welcomed the charges.
‘‘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 US.’’
Michael di Pretoro, a retired 30-year veteran with the FBI who served from 1990 to 1994 as the legal liaison officer at the American consulate in Hong Kong, said ‘‘relations between US and Hong Kong law enforcement personnel are historically quite good’’.
‘‘In my time, I felt the degree of cooperation was outstanding to the extent that I almost felt I was in an FBI field office,’’ said di Pretoro.
The success or failure of any extradition proceeding depended on what the suspect was charged with under US law and how it corresponded to Hong Kong law under the treaty.
In order for Hong Kong officials to honour the extradition request, they would have to have some applicable statute under their law that corresponds with a violation of US law.
However, Snowden’s appeal rights could drag out any extradition proceeding.
Disclosure of the criminal complaint came as President Barack Obama held his first meeting with a privacy and civil liberties board as his intelligence chief sought ways to help Americans understand more about sweeping government surveillance efforts exposed by Snowden.
The five members of the little-known Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board met with Obama for an hour in the White House Situation Room, questioning the president on the two NSA programs that have stoked controversy.
One program collected billions of US phone records. The second gathered audio, video, email, photographic and internet search usage of foreign nationals overseas, and probably some Americans in the process, who used major providers such as Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Yahoo.