Well, we all knew that was coming. On Saturday it was revealed that the U.S. government has filed criminal charges against Edward Snowden who leaked classified details of the National Security Agency's widespread surveillance programs to the media earlier this month. The charges, filed under seal on June 14 in the U.S. District Court in Virginia, allege that Snowden is guilty of theft and espionage, with the three charges each carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years.
The charges against Snowden were inevitable — it was simply a matter of time. It now remains to be seen how Hong Kong authorities will react, and also whether Beijing might get involved. Snowden also turned 30 on Friday. Happy birthday from the U.S. government, Mr. Snowden.
According to court documents (see below), Snowden is charged with the theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person. The later two charges fall under the World War I-era Espionage Act. The charges were filed five days after Snowden was first revealed as the source of the information on the NSA surveillance programs. Snowden is now the eighth person to be charged under the Espionage Act since Obama took office, more than all previous presidents combined. Snowden has admitted that he is the source of the NSA leaks but argues that he his actions were carried out in the public interest.
There has still been no reaction to the charges from authorities in Hong Kong, where Snowden is hiding out in an undisclosed location. The Guardian reports, however, that some legislators in Hong Kong have responded to the charges by "calling for mainland China to intervene in the case." One legislator, Leung Kwok-hung, "said Beijing should instruct Hong Kong to protect Snowden from extradition before the case was dragged through the court system," while another, Cyd Ho, said that mainland China should make its stance on the case clear to Hong Kong authorities. According to Reuters, Beijing has veto power over extradition proceedings if its "defence or foreign affairs would be significantly affected," but it has rarely been invoked for non-Chinese nationals. The Washington Post, citing unnamed U.S. officials, reports that the U.S. "has asked Hong Kong to detain him on a provisional arrest warrant." Reuters reports that according to two U.S. sources, the U.S. "was preparing to seek Snowden's extradition from Hong Kong."
The extradition treaty between the U.S. and Hong Kong, under which "scores of Americans" have already been sent back to the U.S. for trial, has an exception for "an offence of a political character," and Snowden could seek political asylum. In order to be extradited, Snowden must be charged with an equivalent crime under Hong Kong law. If he is not, then according to one legal expert cited by the Guardian, he is theoretically free to leave the city. While "espionage and theft of state secrets are not cited specifically in the treaty, equivalent charges could be pressed against Snowden under Hong Kong's Official Secrets Ordinance." However, although it might be easier to find an equivalent crime under Hong Kong law to the charge of theft, according to Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, the espionage charges were likely to be more controversial and subject to legal challenges.
Snowden would have been fully expecting charges to be filed against him, and he has previously said that he chose Hong Kong because of its "spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent." When asked earlier in the month whether he planned to leave Hong Kong, Snowden said that he would stay and fight whatever charges the U.S. government filed against him in the Hong Kong courts. And that could be a long drawn-out fight, with one legal expert, Hectar Pun, saying extradition proceedings could take up to five years.