WASHINGTON – Federal prosecutors have filed a criminal complaint charging self-proclaimed NSA leaker Edward Snowden with two violations of the Espionage Act and the theft of government property, the first step in a process they hope will bring him back to this country to face trial.
The charges filed under the Espionage Act were unauthorized communication of national defense information and providing U.S. classified intelligence to an unauthorized person.
The complaint was filed under seal June 14 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., and made public Friday evening by government officials. An accompanying affidavit in support of the charges, prepared and signed by FBI Special Agent John A. Kralik Jr., remained under seal.
The complaint now launches what could become a complex, drawn-out extradition process to return Snowden, a former U.S. intelligence handler who turned 30 on Friday, back to the Washington area for prosecution.
A government official, speaking anonymously because the case is still under investigation, said U.S. officials hoped the charges would be enough to satisfy authorities in Hong Kong to begin the extradition process. That process could become bogged down if Snowden fights extradition and argues that he is being singled out and prosecuted for political reasons.
The official added that a more formal, federal grand jury indictment against Snowden probably would follow this summer. “We’re just getting underway,” the official said.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Justice Department move confirmed his view that the leak was “a treasonous act.”
“I hope Hong Kong’s government will take him into custody and extradite him to the U.S.,” said Nelson, who has been outspoken on the Snowden case.
Snowden is believed to be hiding in Hong Kong.
[Updated at 10:10 p.m.: The Hong Kong government had no immediate reaction to the charges against Snowden, the Associated Press reported. The news service also reported that some Hong Kong lawmakers said the Chinese government should make the decision on whether to extradite Snowden. Although China grants the former British colony a high degree of autonomy, Beijing is allowed to intervene in matters involving defense and diplomatic affairs, according to the AP.]
Snowden recently began leaking classified material to the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers about two secret NSA programs that collected troves of telephone logs and Internet postings in this country and abroad.
The leak of the material sparked a firestorm, with allegations from both Republicans and Democrats that the Obama administration had gone too far in its secret eavesdropping networks. But the president and others defended the programs, saying this kind of secret data collection was needed to alert U.S. national security officials about potential terrorist plots at home and abroad.
Many top U.S. officials, including Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, told Congress that the leaks have seriously harmed U.S. national security interests.
Snowden, in a video message, asserted that he had leaked the material and that he believed it was in the nation’s interest to know the reach of U.S. intelligence gatherers.
Meanwhile, the Guardian, using more leaked information from Snowden, reported that British spies were running an online eavesdropping operation so vast that internal documents say it even outstrips the United States’ international Internet surveillance effort.
The paper, citing British intelligence memos, alleged that British spies were tapping into the world’s network of fiber-optic cables to deliver the “biggest Internet access” of any member of the Five Eyes — the name given to the espionage alliance composed of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
That access could in theory expose a huge chunk of the world’s everyday communications — including the content of people’s emails and phone calls. The Guardian said the information flowing across more than 200 cables was being monitored by more than 500 analysts from the NSA and its British counterpart.
Also Friday, an Icelandic business executive said a private plane is on standby to transport Snowden from Hong Kong to Iceland. Olafur Vignir Sigurvinsson said he had not spoken directly with Snowden but had been in touch with a third party representing him. Iceland’s government says it has not received an asylum request from Snowden.