USA TODAY - The Justice Department has charged Edward Snowden with espionage and theft for allegedly leaking details of National Security Agency surveillance operations, a government official confirmed to USA TODAY on Friday night.
The Washington Post, which broke the news, reported that the Justice Department had asked authorities in Hong Kong to detain Snowden on a provisional arrest warrant. The 29-year-old former analyst for contractor Booz Allen Hamilton was also charged with conversion of government property.
The news came hours after the Guardian newspaper reported that Britain's 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 worked as an NSA systems analyst in Hawaii, fled to the Chinese territory last month with top-secret documents and court orders on government surveillance of telephone and Internet communications.
The complaint was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, which the Post said has "a long track record in prosecuting cases with national security implications."
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
An anonymous Justice official told the Associated Press that a sealed criminal complaint against Snowden had been filed. But the official, who was not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation by name, would not specify the charges.
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."
- 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.
The 29-year-old Maryland native told the Guardian, which broke the story with the Post, 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.
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.
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