Espionage charges have been file against NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden by the United States authorities, who have now asked Hong Kong to detain him, according to a US official who spoke to AFP on Friday.
Confirming a report in the Washington Post, the official said a sealed criminal complaint has been lodged with a federal court in the US state of Virginia and a provisional arrest warrant has been issued.
Snowden was charged with espionage, theft and “conversion of government property.” A report on NBC News said he was accused of sharing classified documents with individuals who were not cleared to received them.
Snowden’s former employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, a private company that seconded him to work as a contractor for the National Security Agency in Hawaii, is based in Virginia and prosecutors there often handle security cases.
The 30-year-old technician fled Hawaii on May 20 and flew to Hong Kong, an autonomous Chinese territory, from where he proceeded to leak details of secret US intelligence programs to international media outlets.
The leaks embarrassed US President Barack Obama’s administration, which was forced to defend US intelligence agencies’ practice of gathering huge amounts of telephone and Internet data from private users around the world claimed to be used only for security purposes-against possible terrorits atacks.
Following reports of the sealed complaint, all eyes will turn to Hong Kong and Beijing to see whether China will agree to help the United States by complying with the provisional warrant and holding Snowden. A US ally China is, but has also been accused in the past of hacking into US security setups, following which the Chinese president asked both countries to join hands in fighting hackers and security leaks, in a state visit to US. This may prompt a full cooperation from the world power.
Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous territory with its own legal system and a provision for granting political asylum, but it is subordinate to China in foreign policy matters and has an extradition treaty with Washington.
Snowden has told Britain’s Guardian newspaper that he might seek asylum in Iceland, which has strong Internet freedom laws, but he is thought to still be in Hong Kong and might now find it difficult to travel.
On Thursday, an Icelandic businessman connected to the activist website WikiLeaks said he had chartered a jet and was ready to fly Snowden out of Hong Kong and to safety in Iceland.
But Olafur Sigurvinsson, head of WikiLeaks partner firm DataCell, said Snowden would probably not travel unless he received assurances from Reykjavik that he would be welcomed.
“It would be stupid to come here only to be extradited to the United States. In that case he’d be better off where he is,” he said.
Iceland has said it held informal talks with an intermediary of Snowden over the possibility of seeking political asylum, but that he must present himself on Icelandic soil.
And observers say the tiny mid-Atlantic state’s new center-right coalition may be less willing to anger the United States than its leftist predecessor.
Interior Minister Hanna Kristjansdottir said Tuesday the government did not feel bound by a 2010 resolution by parliament seeking to make the country a safe haven for journalists and whistleblowers from around the globe.
“The resolution is not a part of the laws that apply to asylum seekers,” she told public broadcaster RUV.
Snowden claims that he made his revelations to expose the huge size and indiscriminate nature of the surveillance programs carried out by the NSA and by its allies in Britain’s GCHQ intelligence listening station.
The Guardian has published leaked documents that appear to show that huge quantities of private telephone and Internet data – such as emails and call records – have been scooped up with little or no judicial oversight.
But Obama’s administration insists that the hitherto secret surveillance programs were fully authorized by laws passed by the US Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and amended since.
They also say the surveillance helped thwart up to 50 planned extremist attacks, some of them on US soil, by allowing US agents to track calls and messages to enemy operatives.