A banner supporting Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping U.S. surveillance programs, is displayed at Central, Hong Kong's business district.
Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked a trove of documents about top-secret surveillance programs, was charged with espionage, theft and conversion of government property. Federal prosecutors have filed the sealed criminal complaint today, and the United States has asked Hong Kong to detain him on a provisional arrest warrant, according to U.S. officials.
At the same time, it has been revealed Britain has its own massive surveillance program rivaling, if not exceeding, that of the U.S.
The complaint was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, a jurisdiction where Snowden’s former employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, is headquartered, and a district with a long track record in prosecuting cases with national security implications.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
Snowden flew to Hong Kong last month after leaving his job at an NSA facility in Hawaii with a collection of highly classified documents that he acquired while working at the agency as a systems analyst.
The documents, some of which have been published in The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper, detailed some of the most secret surveillance operations undertaken by the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as classified legal memos and court orders underpinning the programs in the United States.
The 29-year-old intelligence analyst revealed himself June 9 as the leaker in an interview with the Guardian and said he went to Hong Kong because it provided him the “cultural and legal framework to allow me to work without being immediately detained.”
Snowden subsequently disappeared from public view; it is thought that he is still in the Chinese territory. Hong Kong has its own legislative and legal systems but ultimately answers to Beijing, under the so-called “one country, two systems” arrangement.
The leaks have sparked national and international debates about the secret powers of the NSA to infringe on the privacy of both Americans and foreigners. Officials from President Obama down have said they welcomed the opportunity to explain the importance of the programs, and the safeguards they say are built into them. Skeptics, including some in Congress, have said the NSA has assumed power to soak up data about Americans that were never intended under the law.
There was never any doubt that the Justice Department would seek to prosecute Snowden for one of the most significant national security leaks in the country’s history. The Obama administration has shown a particular propensity to go after leakers, and has launched more investigations that any previous administration.
Justice Department officials had already said that a criminal investigation of Snowden was underway and was being run out of the FBI’s Washington field office in conjunction with lawyers from the department’s National Security Division.
By filing a criminal complaint, prosecutors have a legal basis to make the request of the authorities in Hong Kong. Prosecutors now have 60 days to file an indictment, probably also under seal, and can then move to have Snowden extradited from Hong Kong for trial in the United States.
Snowden, however, can fight the U.S. effort to have him extradited in the courts in Hong Kong. Any court battle is likely to reach Hong Kong’s highest court, and could last many months, lawyers in the U.S. and Hong Kong said.
The United States has an extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and U.S. officials said cooperation with the Chinese territory, which enjoys some autonomy from Beijing, has been good in previous cases.
The treaty, however, has an exception for political offenses, and espionage has traditionally been treated as a political offense. Snowden’s defense team in Hong Kong is likely to invoke part of the extradition treaty with the United States, which states that suspects will not be turned over to face criminal trial for offenses of a “political character.”
Snowden could also remain in Hong Kong if the Chinese government decides that it is not in the defense or foreign policy interests of the government in Beijing to have him sent back to the United States for trial.
Snowden could also apply for asylum in Hong Kong, or attempt to reach another jurisdiction and seek asylum there before the authorities in Hong Kong act.
The anti-secrecy group Wikileaks has held some discussions with officials in Iceland about providing asylum to Snowden. A businessman in Iceland has offered to fly Snowden on a chartered jet to his country if he is granted asylum there.
The chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, said last week that the city’s government would follow existing law if and when the U.S. government requested help.
“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,” Leung said in a statement.
Meanwhile, British spies are running an online eavesdropping operation so vast that internal documents say it even outstrips the United States’ international Internet surveillance effort, the Guardian newspaper reported Friday.
The paper cited British intelligence memos leaked by Snowden to claim that U.K. spies were tapping into the world’s network of fiber optic cables to deliver the “biggest internet access” of any member of the Five Eyes — the name given to the espionage alliance composed of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
That access could in theory expose a huge chunk of the world’s everyday communications — including the content of people’s emails, calls, and more — to scrutiny from British spies and their American allies. How much data the Brits are copying off the fiber optic network isn’t clear, but it’s likely to be enormous. The Guardian said the information flowing across more than 200 cables was being monitored by more than 500 analysts from the NSA and its U.K. counterpart, GCHQ.
“This is a massive amount of data!” the Guardian quoted a leaked slide as boasting. The paper said other leaked slides, including one labeled “Collect-it-all,” gave hints as to the program’s ambition.
“Why can’t we collect all the signals all the time?” NSA chief Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander was quoted as saying in another slide. “Sounds like a good summer project for Menwith” — a reference to GCHQ’s Menwith Hill eavesdropping site in northern England.
The NSA declined to comment on Friday’s report. GCHQ also declined to comment on the report, although in an emailed statement it repeated past assurances about the legality of its actions.
“Our work is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework which ensures that our activities are authorized, necessary, and proportionate,” the statement said.
The Guardian, whose revelations about America and Britain’s globe-spanning surveillance programs have reignited an international debate over the ethics of espionage, said GCHQ was using probes to capture and copy data as it crisscrossed the Atlantic between Western Europe and North America.
It said that, by last year, GCHQ was in some way handling 600 million telecommunications every day — although it did not go into any further detail and it was not clear whether that meant that GCHQ could systematically record or even track all the electronic movement at once.
Fiber optic cables — thin strands of glass bundled together and strung out underground or across the oceans — play a critical role in keeping the world connected. A 2010 estimate suggested that such cables are responsible for 95 percent of the world’s international voice and data traffic, and the Guardian said Britain’s geographic position on Europe’s western fringe gave it natural access to many of the trans-Atlantic cables as they emerged from the sea.
The Guardian said GCHQ’s probes did more than just monitor the data live; British eavesdroppers can store content for three days and metadata — information about who was talking to whom, for how long, from where, and through what medium — for 30 days.
The paper quoted Snowden, the leaker, as saying that the surveillance was “not just a US problem. The U.K. has a huge dog in this fight ... They (GCHQ) are worse than the U.S.”