Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor whose leak of agency documents has set off a national debate over the proper limits of government surveillance, has been charged with violating the Espionage Act and stealing government property for disclosing classified information to the Washington Post and the Guardian, a British newspaper, the Justice Department said Friday.
Each of the three charges unsealed Friday carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years, for a total of 30 years. Snowden is likely to be indicted, and additional counts may well be added.
In addition to the theft charge, the two charges under the Espionage Act include "unauthorized communication of national defense information" and "willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person."
"Communications intelligence" is the technical term for eavesdropping and other electronic intercepts.
The charges were filed June 14 by federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia, which handles many national security cases. U.S. officials said they have asked authorities in Hong Kong, where Snowden is believed to be hiding, to detain him while an indictment and an extradition request are prepared.
An attempt to extradite him is likely to produce a long legal battle whose outcome is uncertain. The extradition treaty between the United States and Hong Kong includes an exception for political offenses, and Snowden could argue that his prosecution is political in nature.
Hong Kong has limited autonomy, but matters involving national security and foreign policy are controlled by the Chinese government in Beijing, whose view of the possible extradition of Snowden is unclear.
Last week, hundreds of people turned out in the rain for a protest outside the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong demanding that officials not cooperate with any U.S. extradition request. The Global Times, a mainland newspaper controlled by the Communist Party, called Snowden's extradition an "inconceivable option" in a recent commentary.
The charges against Snowden, first reported by the Washington Post, are the seventh case under President Barack Obama in which a government official has been criminally charged with leaking classified information to the news media. Under all previous presidents, just three such cases have been brought.
Snowden, who turned 30 Friday, fled to Hong Kong last month, carrying four laptops, after leaving his job at the NSA's eavesdropping station in Hawaii. He has given hundreds of highly classified documents to the Guardian, which has been writing a series of revelatory articles about U.S. and British eavesdropping, and a smaller number to the Post.
Snowden's disclosures have opened an unprecedented window on the details of surveillance by the NSA, including its compilation of logs of virtually all telephone calls in the United States and its collection of emails of foreigners from the major American Internet companies, including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple and Skype.
Snowden, who has said he was shocked by what he believed to be the NSA's invasion of Americans' and foreigners' privacy, told the Guardian that he leaked the documents because he believed the limits of surveillance should be decided not by government officials in secret but by U.S. citizens.
U.S. intelligence officials have said his disclosures have done serious damage to national security by giving terrorists and others information on how to evade the intelligence net.
Snowden's supporters, including some associated with the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks, have approached officials in Iceland on his behalf to inquire about whether he might be granted asylum there. Iceland's Ministry of the Interior, however, said in a statement that he must be present in the country in order to file an asylum application.
An Icelandic businessman with ties to WikiLeaks, Olafur Vignir Sigurvinsson, has told reporters that he has private aircraft on standby, prepared to fly Snowden to Iceland. But the American charges and detention request may short-circuit any attempt to reach Iceland.
Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian columnist who received most of Snowden's leaked documents, blasted the Obama administration over the Espionage Act charges on his Twitter feed.
"How is leaking to a newspaper and informing one's fellow citizens about secret govt behavior 'espionage'???" Greenwald wrote.
In the latest installment of the Snowden disclosures Friday, the Guardian reported that the NSA's British counterpart has tapped into hundreds of fiber-optic communications lines and is sharing a vast quantity of email and Internet traffic with U.S. intelligence.
Under a program called Tempora, the British agency, known as the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, has been able to tap into 200 of the approximately 1,600 high-capacity fiber cables in and out of Britain and aspires to be able to tap 400 lines at once, harvesting a staggering amount of information, the British newspaper reported.
The documents said that GCHQ, which has worked very closely with NSA for decades, is permitted to store the content of the communications flowing over the cables for three days and the so-called metadata information on who is contacting whom at what time for 30 days. During that time, analysts from both GCHQ and NSA are able to search the stored data for information of interest.
The disclosures of the GCHQ initiative called "Mastering the Internet" immediately raised a question among privacy advocates: whether the NSA might be able to obtain information about Americans from GCHQ that it is prohibited by law or regulations from collecting itself.
An NSA spokeswoman, Judith Emmel, said the agency does not use foreign partners to evade American restrictions.
"Any allegation that NSA relies on its foreign partners to circumvent U.S. law is absolutely false," Emmel said. "NSA does not ask its foreign partners to undertake any intelligence activity that the U.S. government would be legally prohibited from undertaking itself."
Emmel said the NSA "is unwavering in its respect for U.S. laws and policies" and has "a rigorous internal compliance program" as well as oversight from Congress and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
One of the documents released by Snowden lent some support for the Obama administration's insistence that the NSA is tightly controlled. In a confidential briefing, the Guardian reported, a senior GCHQ legal adviser declared: "We have a light oversight regime compared with the U.S."
The latest documents in the gradual unveiling of what is already the most revealing window on the NSA and its major international partner in their history describe a previously unknown reversal of roles for the two agencies. Historically, NSA has dwarfed GCHQ and the three other eavesdropping agencies in the so-called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network those of Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
But in one of Snowden's documents, NSA officials say that GCHQ now "produces larger amounts of metadata collection than the NSA" and is working with the U.S. agency to process the torrent of data. The Guardian quotes a secret report as saying the United Kingdom now has "the biggest Internet access in Five Eyes."
That assertion is especially remarkable in light of the evidence that the NSA already had extensive access to Internet data. In 2006, Mark Klein, a former AT&T technician, revealed the existence of a secret room controlled by the NSA at a major Internet hub in San Francisco, where the agency appeared to be diverting a large amount of traffic.
Also, an NSA training slide disclosed by Snowden directed the agency's eavesdroppers to collect Internet messages from two sources: "collection of communications on fiber cables and infrastructure as data flows past" and Prism, an NSA program that gathers information from major Internet companies.