By Jeremy Herb and Sheldon Alberts - 06/22/13 10:58 AM EDT
Federal prosecutors have charged National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden with espionage and theft of government property, according to a criminal complaint unsealed Friday night.
Snowden, 29, a former employee of Booz Allen Hamilton and the CIA, revealed the existence of two previously unknown surveillance programs run by the NSA.
Under one program, the NSA is sweeping up information related to every phone call being place on the Verizon network — an effort supported by an order from the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court. A separate NSA program, dubbed PRISM, has been gathering internet data from foreign users.
NSA officials said the programs targeted foreigners and credit them with disrupting more than 50 terror plots against the United States and its allies.
Snowden leaked documents on the programs to the Guardian and The Washington Post, and then revealed himself as the source of the stories in a video from Hong Kong.
Since then, his whereabouts have remained unknown, although he is believed to still be in Hong Kong.
He said in a video that he traveled to Hong Kong because it provided the “cultural and legal framework to allow me to work without being immediately detained.”
The move by the Justice Department to charge Snowden with espionage was an expected step in its attempt to prosecute him for one of the biggest national security leaks in U.S. history.
The U.S. government asked Hong Kong to detain Snowden on a provisional arrest warrant, according to the Post, which first reported the charges. Following the criminal complaint, prosecutors have 60 days to file an indictment against Snowden that could lead to his extradition from Hong Kong, the Post reported.
Snowden can fight the extradition in Hong Kong courts, however, and there are additional complications because Hong Kong is a “special administrative region” of China.
While Hong Kong has some autonomy and an extradition treaty with the U.S., China could potentially prevent the extradition from occurring.
Another option for Snowden would be to seek asylum. Snowden has said that he would like to be granted asylum in Iceland, and on Friday a businessman with ties to Wikileaks said he would fly Snowden to Iceland if the government promised him asylum.
In an online chat with the Guardian earlier this week, Snowden vowed to reveal more details of secret U.S. government surveillance.
"All I can say right now is the U.S. government is not going to be able to cover this up by jailing or murdering me," he said. "Truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped."
The complaint against Snowden was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, which is the location of his former employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, and a district with a record of national security cases.
In a statement late Friday, the Government Accountability project noted that several prominent lawmakers have questioned the legality of the intelligence-gathering programs revealed by Snowden, adding that whistleblower protections should shield him from retaliation if his disclosures expose illegal actions.
"This administration has continually sought to intimidate federal employees – particularly intelligence community workers – and suppress any attempt they might make to speak out against gross corruption, wrongdoing, and illegality," according to the whistleblower-protection organization.
--This report was originally published on Friday at 6:24 p.m. and last updated on Saturday at 6:58 a.m.