“There are a number of hurdles that the government will have to jump through before Snowden will ever end up in a U.S. courtroom,” said Stephen I. Vladeck, an associate dean at American University’s Washington College of Law who studies national security law.
In the end, the ability to bring the former National Security Agency contractor back to the United States will come down to legal maneuvering and creative diplomacy, Vladeck said.
“The dirty little secret about extradition law,” he said, “is it’s really about 90 percent politics and only 10 percent law.”
Snowden, 29, revealed himself June 9 as the anonymous source for articles in the British newspaper the Guardian and The Washington Post about the NSA surveillance of telephone calls and Internet communications. He was staying in an upscale hotel in Hong Kong, a city that he said he had chosen because he felt he might win asylum there.
But Snowden subsequently left the hotel, and it is unclear where he is. In an unusual live Web chat Monday, he said he sees no possibility of a fair trial in the United States and suggested that he would try to elude authorities as long as possible.
Justice Department officials have said that a criminal investigation is underway, led by agents from the FBI’s Washington field office and lawyers from the department’s national security division. Investigators are gathering forensic material to back up possible criminal charges, most likely under the Espionage Act, according to former Justice Department officials.
Snowden also could be charged with theft and the conversion of property belonging to the U.S. government, experts say. A thorny issue for U.S. authorities trying to build their case against Snowden involves how much to reveal about the highly classified material that he allegedly acquired, according to former Justice Department officials.
U.S. officials could file a criminal complaint and try to have Snowden detained in Hong Kong on a provisional arrest, extradition lawyers said. They would then have 60 days to file an indictment, possibly under seal, setting out probable cause. U.S. authorities could then formally move to extradite Snowden for trial in the United States — a move he could fight in the courts.
The United States has extradition treaties with about 120 countries, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier to extract people accused of a crime from those countries. For example, of 130 extradition requests to Britain since 2004, only 77 people were extradited to the United States.