Edward 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 stealing government property for disclosing classified information to The Guardian and The Washington Post, the Justice Department said Friday.
Each of the three charges unsealed Friday carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years, for a total of 30 years. Snowden is likely to be indicted, and additional counts may well be added. In addition to the theft charge, the two charges under the Espionage Act include “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.” Communications intelligence is the technical term for eavesdropping and other electronic intercepts.
The charges were filed on June 14 by federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia, which handles many national security cases. U.S. officials said they have asked the authorities in Hong Kong, where Snowden is believed to be in hiding, to detain him while an indictment and an extradition request are prepared.
The attempt to extradite Snowden is likely to produce a long legal battle whose outcome is uncertain. 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’s disclosures have opened an unprecedented window on the details of surveillance by the NSA, including its compilation of logs of virtually all telephone calls in the United States and its collection of emails of foreigners from the major U.S. Internet companies, including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple and Skype.
U.S. 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 Barack Obama in which a government official has been criminally charged with leaking classified information to the media. Under all previous presidents, just three such cases have been brought.