US federal prosecutors have charged whistleblower Edward Snowden with espionage, theft and conversion of government property in a sealed criminal complaint, and asked Hong Kong to detain him ahead of a move to extradite him.
Though the criminal complaint is sealed, charges of espionage and theft are undoubtedly based on Snowden’s extraction of classified documents from NSA servers, which led to the publication of several articles regarding the NSA’s PRISM program, which is alleged to harvest private user data through cooperation with a slew of American corporations including Facebook, Yahoo, Google, Apple and Microsoft.
The specific details of how Snowden transported the classified NSA documents are somewhat unclear, with The Guardian saying they were extracted using four laptops taken to Hong Kong, though subsequent reporting has pointed to the use of a basic USB thumb drive. Removable media such as thumb drives are banned for use on SIPRNET, the Defense Department’s secret network.
The United States is also preparing to seek Snowden’s extradition from Hong Kong, a source speaking on condition of anonymity told Reuters.
Federal prosecutors have now laid the groundwork for Snowden’s extradition back to the US for trial, and have 60 days to file an indictment. The US currently has an extradition treaty with Hong Kong, though that treaty includes an exception for crimes of a political nature.
The charges against Snowden represent the eighth instance under the Obama presidency that the Espionage Act of 1917 has been used. During all previous American presidencies, the law has been used in a total of three instances to bring charges.
The 29-year-old former intelligence analyst flew to Hong Kong last month, having been in contact with journalists at The Washington Post and The Guardian newspapers regarding a series of highly classified documents regarding a massive electronic surveillance program run by the US National Security Agency that he had acquired and intended to leak.
Washington has now asked Hong Kong’s government to detain Snowden on a provisional arrest warrant, according to officials who spoke with the Post. Though the territory is considered a “semi-autonomous” region under Chinese sovereignty, it is unclear whether the matter will be handled solely by Hong Kong’s legal system with or without intervention from Beijing.
Leung Chun-ying, the chief executive of Hong Kong, made a brief statement last week regarding Snowden’s pending prosecution.
“When the relevant mechanism is activated, the Hong Kong [Special Administrative Region] Government will handle the case of Mr. Snowden in accordance with the laws and established procedures of Hong Kong,” he said in a statement.