US Charges NSA Leaker with Espionage and Theft

June 21, 2013 Updated: June 21, 2013

WASHINGTON—The Justice Department on Friday 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 in federal court in Alexandria, Va., says Snowden engaged in unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful 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 complaint is dated June 14, five days after Snowden’s name first surfaced as the leaker of information about the two programs. The complaint was made available to media outlets, some of which posted the complaint online. It’s signed by John Kralik Jr., special agent with the FBI. 

Congressional reaction was swift.

“I’ve always thought this was a treasonous act. Apparently so does the U.S. Department of Justice,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who has been outspoken on the Snowden case. “I hope Hong Kong’s government will take him into custody and extradite him to the U.S.”

Snowden started leaking classified documents to the the media outlet The Guardian and The Washington Post about two weeks ago. He is currently believed to be in Hong Kong. Patrick Ventrell, director of the the State Department’s press office, said on June 21 that there is no update about a possible extradition from the country. A source in the U.S. government told Reuters on Friday that the U.S. is concurrently preparing to seek Snowden’s extradition from Hong Kong. It is unclear if extradition attempts would work, as the extradition treaty between the countries has an exception for political offenses. 

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 obscure Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board huddled with Obama for an hour in the White House Situation Room, questioning the president on two NSA programs that have stoked controversy.

Snowden has been thinking about going to Iceland, according to some reports. Icelandic businessman told Reuters that a private jet is in place in China that could fly Snowden over to Iceland if circumstances including a positive reaction from the country’s Interior Ministry happen. Ventrell said that he doesn’t think the United States has an extradition treaty with Iceland. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow Zachary on Twitter: @zackstieber