WASHINGTON — The criminal case against Edward Snowden could turn into a prolonged legal battle before the former contractor who says he revealed two highly classified surveillance programs ever appears in a U.S. courtroom to answer espionage charges.
A formal extradition request to bring Snowden to the United States from Hong Kong could drag through appeal courts for years and would pit Beijing against Washington at a time China tries to deflect U.S. accusations that it carries out extensive surveillance on American government and commercial operations.
It is not known whether the U.S. government has made a formal extradition request, and the Hong Kong government had no immediate reaction to the charges against Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who admitted providing information to the news media about the programs. Police Commissioner Andy Tsang told reporters only that the case would be dealt with according to the law. A police statement said it was "inappropriate" for the police to comment on the case.
A one-page criminal complaint against Snowden was unsealed Friday in federal court in Alexandria, Va., part of the Eastern District of Virginia where his former employer, government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, is headquartered, in McLean. He is charged with unauthorized communication of national defense information, willful communication of classified communications intelligence information and theft of government property. The first two are under the Espionage Act and each of the three crimes carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison on conviction.
The complaint is dated June 14, five days after Snowden's name first surfaced as the person who had leaked to the news media that the NSA, in two highly classified surveillance programs, gathered telephone and Internet records to ferret out terror plots.
Snowden told the South China Morning Post in an interview published Saturday on its website that he hoped to stay in the autonomous region of China because he has faith in "the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate."