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US DoJ: Happy b-day, Ed Snowden! You're (not?) charged with capital crimes

Complaint accuses NSA leaker of espionage, theft, and more

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Updated Edward Snowden, the former security contractor who leaked secret NSA documents to The Washington Post and The Guardian newspapers, received an unwelcome birthday present on June 21; namely, he has been formally accused of spying by the US government.

In a sealed criminal complaint, federal prosecutors charged Snowden with espionage, theft, and "conversion of government property," The Washington Post reported on Friday – the latter charge being a fancy way of saying he accessed the government's stuff without proper authority.

The complaint was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, which just happens to be where Snowden's former employer, strategy and technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, is headquartered.

Snowden, who turned 30 on Friday, was working for Booz Allen Hamilton at a facility in Hawaii when he approached US and British newspapers with secret documents regarding top-secret NSA surveillance programs, including mass telephone surveillance and the now-infamous PRISM project.

Shortly thereafter, Snowden fled US soil for Hong Kong, where he gave a number of interviews with the media to explain his actions.

"I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things ... I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under," Snowden told The Guardian. "My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them."

Snowden has since gone underground again, reportedly after being warned by officials that Hong Kong's extradition treaty with the US could put him at risk. His present whereabouts are unknown, but he is believed to have remained in Hong Kong and has continued to work with The Guardian to interpret the documents he leaked.

Having filed a criminal complaint against Snowden, US officials can now request that Hong Kong authorities initiate the process of extraditing him back to the US to stand trial.

That plan could backfire, however, if Hong Kong officials determine that the crimes of which Snowden has been accused are "of a political character." The Chinese territory's extradition treaty with the US includes an exception for such crimes, which have traditionally included espionage.

And even if Hong Kong is willing to comply with the Justice Department's demands, Snowden may still have another option. On Thursday, Icelandic entrepreneur Olafur Vignir Sigurvinsson told the media that he had a private jet waiting in China for Snowden, should he choose to seek asylum in Iceland. WikiLeaks has reportedly also been in discussion with Icelandic officials regarding the matter, though the government has refused to comment.

If Snowden does eventually stand trial in the US, he could face the harshest penalty. Espionage, of which he has been accused, is one of the relatively small number of crimes for which the federal government is authorized to seek the death penalty. ®

Update

New information has been revealed regarding the specific crimes with which Edward Snowden has been charged. The complaint, part of which was published by The New York Times late on Friday, names three sections of the US Code under which Snowden is accused and clarifies the "espionage" charges against him:

  • 18 USC § 641 – Theft of government property
  • 18 USC § 793(d) – Unauthorized communication of national defense information
  • 18 USC 798(a)(3) – Willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person

Each of these charges carries a penalty of a fine or up to ten years imprisonment, or both – so, if Snowden were given successive sentences, he could be imprisoned for up to 30 years and required to pay an unspecified fine.

So far, Snowden has not been charged under 18 USC § 794, "Gathering or delivering defense information to aid foreign government," which is the only portion of the Espionage Act of 1917 that carries a possible death penalty.

The government may yet bring additional charges against Snowden, particularly if the current charges are insufficient to convince a foreign government to extradite him.

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