The US has filed espionage charges against Edward Snowden, a former US National Security Agency contractor who admitted revealing secret surveillance programs to media outlets, according to a court document made public on Friday.
The charges are the government’s first step in what could be a long legal battle to return Snowden from Hong Kong, where he is believed to be in hiding, and try him in a US court.
A Hong Kong newspaper said he was under police protection, but the territory’s authorities declined to comment.
Snowden was charged with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person, said the criminal complaint, which was dated June 14.
Two US sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the US was preparing to seek Snowden’s extradition from Hong Kong, which is part of China but has wide-ranging autonomy, including an independent judiciary.
The Washington Post, which first reported the criminal complaint earlier on Friday, said the US had asked Hong Kong to detain Snowden on a provisional arrest warrant.
Snowden earlier this month admitted leaking secrets about classified US surveillance programs, creating a public uproar. Supporters say he is a whistle-blower, while critics call him a criminal and perhaps even a traitor.
The criminal complaint was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, where Snowden’s former employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, is located.
US President Barack Obama and his intelligence chiefs have vigorously defended the surveillance programs, saying they are regulated by law and that Congress was notified.
US federal prosecutors, by filing a criminal complaint, lay claim to a legal basis to make an extradition request of the authorities in Hong Kong, the Post reported.
The prosecutors now have 60 days to file an indictment and can then take steps to secure Snowden’s extradition from Hong Kong for a criminal trial in the US, the newspaper reported.
The US and Hong Kong have “excellent cooperation” and as a result of agreements, “there is an active extradition relationship between Hong Kong and the US,” a US law enforcement official said.
Since the US and Hong Kong signed an extradition treaty in 1998, scores of Americans have been sent back home to face trial. However, the process can take years, lawyers say.
Under Hong Kong’s extradition process, a request would first go to Hong Kong’s chief executive. A magistrate would issue a formal warrant for Snowden’s arrest if the chief executive agrees the case should proceed.
Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said the first charge of theft against Snowden might find an equivalent charge in Hong Kong, needed to allow extradition proceedings to move forward, but the unauthorized communication and willful communication charges may be sticking points that lead to litigation and dispute in the courts.
What ever the Hong Kong courts decide could be vetoed by the territory’s leader or Beijing on foreign affairs or defense grounds.