The United States has charged former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden with espionage and is seeking to have him extradited from Hong Kong, according to NBC News' Pete Williams. The charges mark the seventh time the Obama administration has charged someone who leaked national security information to the press with spying, more than in all previous presidencies combined.
Critics have charged that the Obama White House has utilized espionage charges to target not spies but whistle blowers who were acting in the public interest by disclosing information about government wrongdoing to the public. Among those charged have been Thomas Drake, the former NSA official who leaked word of what he saw as lawless behavior by the NSA to the press, and John Kiriakou, a former CIA analyst who had leaked the identity of an undercover Agency operative to a reporter. Charges against Drake were ultimately dropped; Kiriakou was sentenced to 30 months in prison. Several members of Congress have already publicly referred to Snowden as a traitor. Snowden has said "My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them."
The accusation that Obama is wrongfully charging whistle blowers with spying will continue with Snowden, whose leaks to the Washington Post and the Guardian rank among the most significant in U.S. history. The disclosures revealed a great deal about the breadth of U.S. national security policies that was not previously known or that the government has tried to keep secret. Those leaks have provoked a public debate over the size and power of the post-9/11 security state, a discussion that President Obama has "welcomed" but would likely rather not have—at least, not on terms outside of his control.
It's clear in any case that the administration still likes to keep information closely held. According to Williams, the charges were filed under seal and so, like the secret court interpretations of laws like the Patriot Act, they were not initially made public. The charges were filed a week ago--June 14--and disclosed Friday. He's charged with three violations: one of theft of government property, and two offenses under the espionage statutes (giving national defense information to someone without a security clearance and revealing classified information about "communications intelligence").
Each of the charges carries a maximum of ten years in prison.
According to NBC News, the U.S. has also filed a "provisional arrest warrant" formally asking the police in Hong Kong to arrest Snowden. Because the FBI has no jurisdiction outside U.S. borders, American prosecutors must ask local police to make the arrest. Once Hong Kong police make the arrest, the U.S. will then seek his extradition.
Snowden has said he will contest it in courts there. The process will undoubtedly take months and will be governed by Chinese law.