By Michael Winter, USA TODAY
The Justice Department has charged Edward Snowden with espionage for allegedly leaking details of National Security Agency surveillance operations and has asked Hong Kong to arrest him, The Washington Post reported Friday evening.
Citing unnamed U.S. officials, the Post said Snowden, who formerly worked for Virginia-based private contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, was also charged with theft and conversion of government property.
Federal prosecutors asked authorities in Hong Kong to detain Snowden on a provisional arrest warrant, the Post says. Snowden, who worked as a systems analyst in Hawaii, fled to the Chinese territory last month with top-secret documents and court orders on government surveillance of telephone and Internet communications.
The complaint was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, which the Post says has "a long track record in prosecuting cases with national security implications."
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
The United States has an extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and Snowden could fight extradition if he is arrested. But, as the Post points out, the treaty 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 29-year-old Maryland native told the Guardian, which broke the story with thePost, that Hong Kong provided him the "cultural and legal framework to allow me to work without being immediately detained."
The British returned the former colony to China in 1997. Although it has own legal system, Hong Kong ultimately answers to the national leadership in Beijing.
On Wednesday, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said that his organization was helping Snowden to try to broker asylum in Iceland.
Hong Kong's government and residents have been unsettled by Snowden's claims that since 2009 the NSA has been attacking computers belonging to Hong Kong officials, universities, businesses and students.
Hundreds turned out to protest the alleged surveillance, which the territory's leaders said last week they would be investigated.
"The government will follow up on any incidents related to the privacy or other rights of institutions or people in Hong Kong being violated," said C.Y. Leung, Hong Kong's chief executive.