Some asylum seekers came to Hong Kong 10 years ago and still haven't had their protection claims assessed. —Mark Sutherland
WASHINGTON — The criminal case against Edward Snowden could turn into a prolonged legal battle before the former contractor who says he revealed two highly classified surveillance programs ever appears in a U.S. courtroom to answer espionage charges.
A formal extradition request to bring Snowden to the United States from Hong Kong could drag through appeal courts for years and would pit Beijing against Washington at a time China tries to deflect U.S. accusations that it carries out extensive surveillance on American government and commercial operations.
The U.S. has contacted authorities in Hong Kong to seek Snowden's extradition, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council, Caitlin Hayden, said Saturday in a statement. She referred questions about the details of the request to the Justice Department. The NSC advises the president on national security.
The Hong Kong government had no immediate reaction to the charges against Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who admitted providing information to the news media about the programs. Police Commissioner Andy Tsang told reporters only that the case would be dealt with according to the law. A police statement said it was "inappropriate" for the police to comment on the case.
A 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. He is charged with unauthorized communication of national defense information, willful communication of classified communications intelligence information and theft of government property. The first two are under the Espionage Act and each of the three crimes carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison on conviction.
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.
Snowden told the South China Morning Post in an interview published Saturday on its website that he hoped to stay in the autonomous region of China because he has faith in "the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate."
A prominent former politician in Hong Kong, Martin Lee, the founding chairman of the Democratic Party, said he doubted whether Beijing would intervene yet.
"Beijing would only intervene according to my understanding at the last stage. If the magistrate said there is enough to extradite, then Mr. Snowden can then appeal," he said.
Lee said Beijing could then decide at the end of the appeal process if it wanted Snowden extradited or not.
If formal extradition is pursued, Snowden could contest it on grounds of political persecution.
Hong Kong lawyer Mark Sutherland said that the filing of a refugee, torture or inhuman punishment claim acts as an automatic bar on any extradition proceedings until those claims can be assessed.
"Some asylum seekers came to Hong Kong 10 years ago and still haven't had their protection claims assessed," Sutherland said.
Hong Kong lawmakers said that the Chinese government should make the final decision on whether Snowden should be extradited to the United States.
Outspoken legislator Leung Kwok-hung said Beijing should instruct Hong Kong to protect Snowden from extradition before his case gets dragged through the court system.
Leung urged the people of Hong Kong to "take to the streets to protect 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 underway.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, welcomed the charges against Snowden.
"I've always thought this was a treasonous act," he said in a statement. "I hope Hong Kong's government will take him into custody and extradite him to the U.S."
But the Government Accountability Project, a whistle-blower advocacy group, said Snowden should be shielded from prosecution by whistle-blower protection laws.
"He disclosed information about a secret program that he reasonably believed to be illegal, and his actions alone brought about the long-overdue national debate about the proper balance between privacy and civil liberties, on the one hand, and national security on the other," the group said in a statement.
Michael di Pretoro, a retired 30-year veteran with the FBI who served from 1990 to 1994 as the legal liaison officer at the American consulate in Hong Kong, said "relations between U.S. and Hong Kong law enforcement personnel are historically quite good."
"In my time, I felt the degree of cooperation was outstanding to the extent that I almost felt I was in an FBI field office," di Pretoro said.
The U.S. and Hong Kong have a standing agreement on the surrender of fugitives. However, Snowden's appeal rights could drag out any extradition proceeding.
The success or failure of any extradition proceeding depends on what the suspect is charged with under U.S. law and how it corresponds to Hong Kong law under the treaty. In order for Hong Kong officials to honor the extradition request, they have to have some applicable statute under their law that corresponds with a violation of U.S. law.
Disclosure of the criminal complaint came as President Barack Obama held his first meeting with a privacy and civil liberties board and as his intelligence chief sought ways to help Americans understand more about sweeping government surveillance efforts exposed by Snowden.
The five members of the little-known Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board met with Obama for an hour in the White House Situation Room, questioning the president on the two NSA programs that have stoked controversy.
One program collects billions of U.S. phone records. The second gathers audio, video, email, photographic and Internet search usage of foreign nationals overseas, and probably some Americans in the process, who use major Internet service providers, such as Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Yahoo.