(Photo: REUTERS/Bobby Yip)
Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who took responsibility for leaking information about top-secret NSA surveillance programs, was charged on Friday with espionage in federal court in Virginia. However, Hong Kong, where he is believed to be hiding, is silent on the possibility of his extradition to the U.S.
Federal prosecutors charged Snowden with theft of government property and two violations of the U.S. Espionage Act, which are unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person.
Snowden, who turned 30 on Friday, faces 10 years in prison on the theft count and 10 years on the espionage charges.
The United States has asked Hong Kong to detain Snowden on a provisional arrest warrant, according to The Washington Post. It is not known if the U.S. has formally made an extradition request. However, Hong Kong, which has an extradition agreement with the U.S., had not responded to the charging of Snowden until Saturday morning.
The Police Commissioner of Hong Kong, Andy Tsang, has only said that the case will be dealt with as per the law, according to The Associated Press.
To be able to act on the extradition request, Hong Kong authorities would first need to have a local statute corresponding with a violation of U.S. law.
Reuters quoted Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, as saying that the theft charge might have an equivalent law in Hong Kong, but the espionage charges could involve "litigation and dispute" in the courts.
The U.S.-Hong Kong extradition treaty carries an exception for political offenses.
Snowden also has an option to file an asylum claim.
Hong Kong's extradition mechanism requires that a request be made through diplomatic channels to Hong Kong's leader, who will then decide whether to issue an "authority to proceed," and only then can a magistrate issue a formal arrest warrant.
Hong Kong's leader and China have the power to veto the decision of a court on extradition, on national security or defense grounds.
Meanwhile, Wikileaks has reportedly arranged for an airplane in case a situation arises where Snowden should be taken to Iceland to seek asylum.
Snowden, who worked for defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, fled to Hong Kong on May 20, and came forward as the source of the leak about a secret program that was collecting data on all phone calls made on the Verizon network, and another program code-named PRISM that collects the Internet data of foreigners from major Internet companies like Microsoft, Google and Apple.
Snowden, who grew up in Elizabeth City, N.C., before moving with his family to Maryland, later also disclosed that the U.S. intercepted secret communications during a Group of 20 Summit in London in 2009 including that of then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. He also showed documents about the British spy agency GCHQ tapping a global network of phone and internet cables and sharing the information with the NSA.
"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 earlier told British newspaper The Guardian, which was the first to publicly identify him at his own request. "Allowing the U.S. government to intimidate its people with threats of retaliation for revealing wrongdoing is contrary to the public interest."
U.S. officials have claimed that data that is gathered is accessed only on the authority of a judge when investigators think it is linked to terrorism. Obama has told Americans, "Nobody is listening to your telephone calls." However, he has also defended the gathering of data, blaming it on "some trade-offs" between privacy and safety of Americans.