The U.S. 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 defence information and wilful 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 penalty.
The federal court in the eastern district of Virginia where the complaint was filed is headquarters for Snowden's former employer, Booz Allen Hamilton.
The complaint will be an integral part of the U.S. government's effort to have Snowden extradited from Hong Kong, a process that could become 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 offences from the obligation to surrender.
The complaint is dated June 14, five days after Snowden's name first surfaced as the leaker of information about the two programs.
Congressional reaction was swift.
"I've always thought this was a treasonous act. Apparently so does the U.S. Department of Justice," said Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, a senior member of the Senate armed services committee. "I hope Hong Kong's government will take him into custody and extradite him to the U.S."
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 two NSA programs that have stoked controversy.