U.S. files espionage charges against NSA leaker

Updated June 22, 2013, 12:06 AM ET

The U.S. government has brought criminal charges against Edward Snowden, the former NSA contract employee who exposed two of the government's top-secret surveillance programs -- one that collected the phone records of millions of Americans, the other monitored internet traffic -- CBS News has learned Friday.

Snowden, believed to be holed up in Hong Kong, has admitted providing information to the news media about two highly classified NSA surveillance programs.

A one-page criminal complaint unsealed in federal court in Alexandria, Va., says Snowden engaged in unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information. Both are charges under the Espionage Act. Snowden also is charged with theft of government property. All three crimes carry a maximum 10-year prison penalty.

The complaint is dated June 14, five days after Snowden's name first surfaced as the leaker of information about the two programs.

Congressional reaction was swift.

"I've always thought this was a treasonous act. Apparently so does the U.S. Department of Justice," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who has been outspoken on the Snowden case. "I hope Hong Kong's government will take him into custody and extradite him to the U.S."

Disclosure of the criminal complaint came as President Barack Obama held his first meeting with a privacy and civil liberties board as his intelligence chief sought ways to help Americans understand more about sweeping government surveillance efforts exposed by Snowden.

The five members of the obscure Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board huddled with Obama for an hour in the White House Situation Room, questioning the president on two NSA programs that have stoked controversy.

A contractor at the time with Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden identified himself as the source of the leaked documents, CBS News correspondent Bob Orr reported. He gave them to the newspapers the Guardian and the Washington Post. The leaks detailed programs that the NSA swept up vast amount of Internet and telephone data.

U.S. officials have asked Hong Kong authorities to detain Snowden, but it is uncertain of his current status and whether or not he has been taken into custody.

The complaint could become an integral part of a U.S. government effort to have Snowden extradited from Hong Kong, a process that could turn into a prolonged legal battle. Snowden could contest extradition on grounds of political persecution. In general, the extradition agreement between the U.S. and Hong Kong excepts political offenses from the obligation to turn over a person.

It was unclear late Friday whether the U.S. had made an extradition request. Hong Kong had no immediate reaction to word of the charges against Snowden, first reported by The Washington Post.

The Espionage Act arguably is a political offense. The Obama administration has now used the act in eight 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.

Meanwhile, an Icelandic business executive said Friday that a private plane is on standby to transport Snowden from Hong Kong to Iceland.

Olafur Vignir Sigurvinsson said he has not spoken directly with Snowden but has been in touch with a third party representing him.

The businessman, who has connections to the WikiLeaks secret-spilling organization, said he has access to planes in Hong Kong and mainland China that Snowden could use.

But Iceland's government says it has not received an asylum request from Snowden, who has revealed his role in providing secret NSA documents about widespread surveillance programs.

Iceland Interior Ministry spokesman Johannes Tomasson said Snowden hasn't approached the ministry and could initiate an asylum request if he was already in Iceland.

When asked about the reports of Sigurvinsson chartering a private plane to fly Snowden to Iceland, Tomasson said: "We don't object to that. But we don't have any knowledge other than what has been in the news. We can't comment any further on that."

Sigurvinsson said that Snowden's potential private flight is being funded by private donations.

"There are a number of people that are interested in freedom of speech and recognize the importance of knowing who is spying on us," he said. "We are people that care about privacy."

Money is being raised on Snowden's behalf by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee based in the United States, but it was not expected to be tapped to help with the cost of a possible flight to Iceland.

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