US federal prosecutors have charged whistleblower Edward Snowden with espionage, theft and conversion of government property in a criminal complaint, and asked Hong Kong to detain him ahead of a move to extradite him.
Charges of espionage and theft are based on Snowden’s extraction of classified documents from NSA servers, which led to publication of several articles regarding the NSA’s surveillance programs, including PRISM, which is alleged to harvest private user data through cooperation with a slew of American corporations including Facebook, Yahoo, Google, Apple and Microsoft.
The implicated companies have denied granting US intelligence services “direct access” to their servers, though during an online chat on Monday Snowden alleged that they had been purposely deceptive in their responses.
When asked to “define in as much detail as you can what ‘direct access’ means,” Snowden went into greater technical detail:
“More detail on how direct NSA’s accesses are is coming, but in general, the reality is this: if an NSA, FBI, CIA, DIA, etc analyst has access to query raw SIGINT databases, they can enter and get results for anything they want,” he said.
The specific details of how Snowden transported the classified NSA documents are somewhat unclear, with The Guardian saying they were extracted using four laptops taken to Hong Kong, though subsequent reports suggested that Snowden simply copied secret files on USB drives. Even though the use of thumb drives is banned in SIPRNET, the Defense Department’s secret network, as a system administrator Snowden had much broader access to data.
The United States is also preparing to seek Snowden’s extradition from Hong Kong, a source speaking on condition of anonymity told Reuters.
Federal prosecutors have now laid the groundwork for Snowden’s extradition back to the US for trial, and have 60 days to file an indictment. In order to have Snowden’s extradited, Washington will have to support its charges with sufficient evidence to convince Hong Kong officials that the charges are not based on political offenses, which can be excepted by either side in the terms of the extradition agreement between the US and Hong Kong.
The charges against Snowden represent the seventh instance under the Obama presidency that the Espionage Act of 1917 has been used. During all previous American presidencies, the law has been used in a total of three instances to bring charges.
The 29-year-old former intelligence analyst flew to Hong Kong last month, having been in contact with journalists at The Washington Post and The Guardian newspapers regarding a series of highly classified documents regarding a massive electronic surveillance program run by the US National Security Agency that he had acquired and intended to leak.
Washington has now asked Hong Kong’s government to detain Snowden on a provisional arrest warrant, according to officials who spoke with the Post. Though the territory is considered a “semi-autonomous” region under Chinese sovereignty, it is unclear whether the matter will be handled solely by Hong Kong’s legal system with or without intervention from Beijing.
Leung Chun-ying, the chief executive of Hong Kong, made a brief statement last week regarding Snowden’s pending prosecution.
“When the relevant mechanism is activated, the Hong Kong [Special Administrative Region] Government will handle the case of Mr. Snowden in accordance with the laws and established procedures of Hong Kong,” he said in a statement.
Speaking to CNN following the news of the criminal complaint filed against Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who worked directly with the whistleblower, called the Obama administration’s decision to pursue an espionage charge an overreach. According to Greenwald, though Snowden was aware he was breaking the law by disclosing highly classified documents to the press, the former analyst saw the action as a form of civil disobedience.
“I think this really illustrates how vindictive this president is and how much acrimony he has towards any kind of transparency,” said Greenwald of the indictment.