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Edward Snowden charged with espionage for NSA leaks

11:04 PM, Jun 21, 2013   |    comments
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Federal authorities have charged a former defense contractor with espionage and theft in connection with the disclosure of details about two secret surveillance programs managed by the National Security Agency, a government official confirmed Friday.

The official, who is not authorized to comment publicly, confirmed that the charges against Edward Snowden were filed in a sealed complaint released late today and that authorities were seeking the cooperation of Hong Kong officials to assist in his detention.

The charges against Snowden were first reported Friday by The Washington Post.

Snowden, who turned 30 on Friday, has been the focus of a criminal investigation since he acknowledged to the Post and the Guardian newspapers earlier this month that he was the source of materials detailing surveillance programs that collected telephone records for millions of Americans and a separate operation that targeted the Internet communications of non-citizens abroad who were suspected of terrorist connections.

The news came hours after the Guardian reported that Britain's GCHQ spy agency had secretly tapped into the fiber-optic cables that carry the world's phone calls and Internet traffic and is sharing information with the NSA.

Snowden, who was employed by Booz Allen Hamilton as an NSA systems analyst in Hawaii, fled to the Chinese territory last month with top-secret documents and court orders on government surveillance operations.

The one-page complaint -- marked "UNDER SEAL" -- was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, which the Post said has "a long track record in prosecuting cases with national security implications."

The formal charges, which were filed June 14, are unauthorized communication of national defense information; willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person; and theft of government property.

The espionage charge carries a maximum prison term of 10 years.

The United States has an extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and Snowden could fight extradition if he is arrested. But, as the Post pointed out, the treaty has an exception for political offenses, and espionage "has traditionally been treated as a political offense."

The Post writes:

Snowden's defense team in Hong Kong is likely to invoke 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.

Snowden told the Guardian that Hong Kong provided him the "cultural and legal framework to allow me to work without being immediately detained."

The British returned the former colony to China in 1997. Although it has own legal system, Hong Kong ultimately answers to the national leadership in Beijing.

On Wednesday, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said that his organization was helping Snowden to try to broker asylum in Iceland because of the country's values, including protecting Internet freedom.

Were he to apply for asylum in Hong Kong, Snowden would not be given preferential treatment, an official with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees told the South China Morning Post.

Hong Kong's government and residents have been unsettled by Snowden's claims that since 2009 the NSA has been attacking computers belonging to Hong Kong officials, universities, businesses and students.

Hundreds turned out to protest the alleged surveillance, which the territory's leaders said last week they would be investigated.

"The government will follow up on any incidents related to the privacy or other rights of institutions or people in Hong Kong being violated," said C.Y. Leung, Hong Kong's chief executive.

Michael Winter, USA TODAY

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