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 theft of government property for disclosing classified information to The Guardian and The Washington Post, officials said Friday.
The charges were filed under seal on June 14 and unsealed late Friday. American officials said they had asked the authorities in Hong Kong, where Mr. Snowden is believed to be in hiding, to detain him while an indictment and an extradition request were prepared. The charges were first reported by The Washington Post.
The attempt to extradite Mr. Snowden is likely to produce a lengthy legal battle whose outcome is uncertain, because 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.
Snowden, who turned 30 on Friday, fled to Hong Kong last month, carrying four laptop computers, 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 written a series of 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 NSA’s, 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 the privacy of Americans and foreigners, told The Guardian that he leaked the documents because he believed that the limits of surveillance should be decided not by government officials in secret but by American citizens.
American intelligence 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.
The case against Snowden, in a sealed criminal complaint filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, is 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 were brought.
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 to file an asylum application.MORE IN Wire NewsAssociated Press Full Story
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