NSA leaker charged with espionage, theft

NSA leaker charged with espionage, theft (Image 1)
NSA leaker charged with espionage, theft (Image 1)

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Justice Department has charged former National
Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden with espionage and theft of
government property in the NSA surveillance case.

Snowden, believed to be holed up in Hong Kong, has
admitted providing information to the news media about two highly
classified NSA surveillance programs.

A one-page criminal complaint unsealed Friday in
federal court in Alexandria, Va., says Snowden engaged in unauthorized
communication of national defense information and willful communication
of classified communications intelligence information. Both are charges
under the Espionage Act. Snowden also is charged with theft of
government property. All three crimes carry a maximum 10-year prison

The federal court in the Eastern District of
Virginia where the complaint was filed is headquarters for Snowden's
former employer, government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.

The complaint is dated June 14, five days after
Snowden's name first surfaced as the leaker of information about the two
programs in which the NSA gathered telephone and Internet records to
ferret out terror plots.

The complaint could become an integral part of a
U.S. government effort to have Snowden extradited from Hong Kong, a
process that could turn into a prolonged legal battle. Snowden could
contest extradition on grounds of political persecution. In general,
the extradition agreement between the U.S. and Hong Kong excepts
political offenses from the obligation to turn over a person.

It was unclear late Friday whether the U.S. had
made an extradition request. Hong Kong had no immediate reaction to word
of the charges against Snowden.

The Espionage Act arguably is a political offense.
The Obama administration has now used the act in eight criminal cases in
an unprecedented effort to stem leaks. In one of them, Army Pfc.
Bradley Manning acknowledged he sent more than 700,000 battlefield
reports, diplomatic cables and other materials to the anti-secrecy
website WikiLeaks. His military trial is underway.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a member of the Senate
Armed Services Committee, welcomed the charges against Snowden. “I've
always thought this was a treasonous act,” he said in a statement. “I
hope Hong Kong's government will take him into custody and extradite him
to the U.S.”

Michael di Pretoro, a retired 30-year veteran with
the FBI who served from 1990 to 1994 as the legal liaison officer at the
American consulate in Hong Kong, said “relations between U.S. and Hong
Kong law enforcement personnel are historically quite good.”

“In my time, I felt the degree of cooperation was
outstanding to the extent that I almost felt I was in an FBI field
office,” said di Pretoro.

The U.S. and Hong Kong have a standing agreement on
the surrender of fugitives. However, Snowden's appeal rights could drag
out any extradition proceeding.

The success or failure of any extradition
proceeding depends on what the suspect is charged with under U.S. law
and how it corresponds to Hong Kong law under the treaty. In order for
Hong Kong officials to honor the extradition request, they have to have
some applicable statute under their law that corresponds with a
violation of U.S. law.

In Iceland, a business executive said Friday that a
private plane was on standby to transport Snowden from Hong Kong to
Iceland, although Iceland's government says it has not received an
asylum request from Snowden.

Business executive Olafur Vignir Sigurvinsson said
he has been in contact with someone representing Snowden and has not
spoken to the American himself. Private donations are being collected to
pay for the flight, he said.

“There are a number of people that are interested
in freedom of speech and recognize the importance of knowing who is
spying on us,” Sigurvinsson said. “We are people that care about

Disclosure of the criminal complaint came as
President Barack Obama held his first meeting with a privacy and civil
liberties board as his intelligence chief sought ways to help Americans
understand more about sweeping government surveillance efforts exposed
by Snowden.

The five members of the little-known Privacy and
Civil Liberties Oversight Board met with Obama for an hour in the White
House Situation Room, questioning the president on the two NSA programs
that have stoked controversy.

One program collects billions of U.S. phone
records. The second gathers audio, video, email, photographic and
Internet search usage of foreign nationals overseas, and probably some
Americans in the process, who use major providers such as Microsoft,
Google, Apple, and Yahoo.

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