WASHINGTON - Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who said he revealed that the National Security Agency collects Americans' phone records and Internet data from U.S. communication companies, now faces charges of espionage and theft of government property.
Snowden is believed to be in Hong Kong, which could complicate efforts to bring him to a U.S. federal court to answer charges that he engaged in unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information.
In addition to those charges, both brought under the Espionage Act, the government charged Snowden with theft of government property. Each crime carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Hong Kong was silent Saturday on whether Snowden should be extradited to the United States now that he has been charged, but some of Hong Kong's legislators said the decision should be up to the Chinese government.
The 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.
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.
It was unclear Friday whether the U.S. had yet to begin an effort to extradite Snowden from Hong Kong. He could contest extradition on grounds of political persecution. In general, the extradition agreement between the U.S. and Hong Kong excepts political offenses from the obligation to turn over a person. Hong Kong could consider the charges under the Espionage Act political crimes.
Hong Kong had no immediate reaction to word of the charges against Snowden.
The Obama administration has now used the Espionage Act in seven criminal cases in an unprecedented effort to stem leaks. In one of them, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning acknowledged he sent more than 700,000 battlefield reports, diplomatic cables and other materials to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. His military trial is under way.