This article is from the archive of our partner .

Late on a Friday afternoon before the first weekend of summer, some news out of the Department of Justice: Edward Snowden has been formally charged with espionage. Moreover, the United States government has asked Hong Kong to detain Snowden, the first step in the process to extradite him to face charges. Not a pleasant 30th birthday present for the NSA leaker.

The Washington Post reports on the announcement.

Snowden was charged with espionage, theft and conversion of government property, the officials said.

The complaint was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, a jurisdiction where Snowden’s former employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, is headquartered, and a district with a long track record in prosecuting cases with national security implications.

The New York Times' Charlie Savage obtained a copy of the first page of the complaint which at first was under seal. (It no longer is.) The relevant section is shown below. It was filed on June 14.

Depending on the number of counts for each charge in the complaint, Snowden faces a wide array of possible punishments. Under certain conditions, espionage convictions could result in the death penalty, though that's highly unlikely. The espionage charge, the last listed above, may not necessarily mean that the government believes Snowden was spying for another country (like China). The law states:

Whoever knowingly and willfully communicates, furnishes, transmits, or otherwise makes available to an unauthorized person, or publishes, or uses in any manner prejudicial to the safety or interest of the United States or for the benefit of any foreign government to the detriment of the United States any classified information ... concerning the communication intelligence activities of the United States or any foreign government.

That's from the third listed charge. The theft charges (legal language) certainly relate to Snowden taking files from the NSA. Such charges also vary in possible punishment, but are usually felonies. "Unauthorized communication of national defense information" is described here.

NBC News reports that "the United States and authorities in Hong Kong have been going back and forth to make certain that whatever charges the U.S. filed would conform to the extradition treaty with Hong Kong." If Snowden faced capital charges, for example, he would not be eligible for extradition.

Which is clearly the next step. Now that the complaint has been filed, the U.S. government has 60 days to file an indictment with the court in Hong Kong to ask that Snowden be extradited for trial. (We outlined the full process earlier this week.) A court in Hong Kong would then have to agree to the extradition, but Snowden has the right to appeal. In a separate Post article, the paper reported that Snowden could be jailed "at the Lai Chi Kok maximum-security facility in Kowloon, where conditions are harsh."

Snowden's final option is to apply for asylum from either Hong Kong or another country, like Iceland. Earlier today, an Icelandic businessman said he had a plane waiting at the Hong Kong airport to take Snowden to that country. He might want to get the engine running.

Update: In an email to Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing, Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg noted that he faced the same set of charges.

And all of the media attention is proving to be a surprising boon for Iceland's tourism bureau.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to