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 is trying to deflect U.S. accusations 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. He is charged with unauthorized communication of national defence information, wilful 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 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 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 the Chinese government should make the final decision on whether Snowden should be extradited.
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.
-- The Associated Press