WASHINGTON (CNN) — Federal prosecutors have charged Edward Snowden, the man who admitted leaking top-secret details about U.S. surveillance programs, with espionage and theft of government property, according to a criminal complaint unsealed in U.S. District Court in Virginia on Friday.
The United States has asked Hong Kong, where Snowden is believed to be in hiding, to detain the former National Security Agency contract analyst on a provisional arrest warrant, The Washington Post reported, citing unnamed U.S. officials.
The complaint charges Snowden with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person. The latter two allegations amount to espionage under the federal Espionage Act.
Snowden, 30, has admitted in interviews he was the source behind the leak of classified documents about the NSA’s surveillance programs. Those leaks were the basis of reports in Britain’s Guardian newspaper and The Washington Post this month. The Guardian revealed Snowden’s identify at his request.
The documents revealed the existence of top-secret surveillance programs that collect records of domestic telephone calls in the United States and monitor the Internet activity of overseas residents.
The revelation rocked the Obama administration and U.S. intelligence community, raising questions about secret operations of the NSA and whether the agency was infringing on American civil liberties.
Obama, top legislators and national security officials defend the surveillance programs as necessary to combat terrorism and argue that some privacy must be sacrificed in a balanced approach.
They say the law allows collection of metadata, such as the time and numbers of phone calls, and that a special federal court must approve accessing the content — listening to the call itself.
Snowden is believed to be in hiding in Hong Kong, where he said in interviews earlier this month he fled with the classified documents after taking a leave of absence from his job as an intelligence analyst for NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamiliton. The company has since fired him.
A series of blog posts this week purportedly by Snowden said he leaked classified details about U.S. surveillance programs because President Barack Obama worsened “abusive” practices, instead of curtailing them as he promised as a candidate.
However, Obama “closed the door on investigating systemic violations of law, deepened and expanded several abusive programs, and refused to spend the political capital to end the kind of human rights violations like we see in Guantanamo, where men still sit without charge,” a blog post said. The Guardian newspaper and website identified the author as Snowden.
Snowden said that he had to get out of the United States before the leaks were published by the Guardian and The Washington Post to avoid being targeted by the government.
In the interview with the South China Morning Post, he said he plans to stay in Hong Kong to fight any attempt to force him to return to the United States because he has “faith in Hong Kong’s rule of law.”
The complaint against him was filed under seal on June 14 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, but it was unclear from the document whether the United States has asked or will be asking Hong Kong to detain Snowden.
There have been “some preliminary” discussions with Hong Kong authorities, a U.S. official with knowledge of the process told CNN.
The U.S. signed an extradition treaty with Hong Kong in 1996, just seven months before the then British colony was handed back to Beijing. Hong Kong’s extradition laws had previously been governed by the United States-United Kingdom extradition treaty.
This new treaty established an agreement under Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” that allows Hong Kong autonomy from Beijing in all matters apart from defense and foreign policy.
Carol Cratty reported from Washington; Chelsea J. Carter reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Tom Dunlavey and Steve Brusk contributed to this report.