If U.S. officials criminally charge Edward Snowden, they are likely to confront a complicated and lengthy process to bring the admitted leaker of top-secret documents back home to stand trial, according to extradition experts and law enforcement officials.
Although the United States has an extradition treaty with Hong Kong, where Snowden was last seen, the treaty offers an exception for political offenses. It also has a rare exception that would allow Snowden to stay in Hong Kong if the government there determines it to be in its best interest. He also could apply for asylum in Hong Kong, Iceland or another country. On Wednesday, the founder of WikiLeaks told reporters that his legal advisers had been in touch with Icelandic officials on Snowden’s behalf.
“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.
To fight extradition, Snowden could invoke Article 6 of the 1997 pact between the United States and Hong Kong, which states that a suspect will not be surrendered to face criminal prosecution for an offense of a “political character.”
That’s a standard and historic exception in treaties between governments but one that lacks a standard definition or clear legal interpretation. In the United States, as well as in other states, what constitutes a political act has narrowed. How the Hong Kong courts would view such an assertion is unclear. If Snowden argues that he is an activist, said Simon N.M. Young, director for the Center of Comparative and Public Law at the University of Hong Kong, “this will be one of our first cases.”
Hong Kong also has an additional and unusual exception in its treaty that could provide a defense for Snowden, according to Douglas McNabb, a lawyer who specializes in international extradition cases. Hong Kong authorities can refuse the extradition of a suspect “if they believe it should be denied from a defense or foreign policy perspective,” McNabb said. “I have not seen that in any other treaty.” Public sentiment in support of Snowden has built in Hong Kong, and hundreds rallied in the streets Saturday.
Should a Hong Kong judge rule against Snowden, he could continue to appeal, all the way up to Hong Kong’s highest court, dragging the process out over many months. Bail is unlikely to be offered, so Snowden could be in jail at that point, possibly at the Lai Chi Kok maximum-
security facility in Kowloon, where conditions are harsh. “That will be added pressure on him for how long he wants to fight it out here,” Young said.
Aside from the courts, Snowden could plead for asylum, the route taken by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been holed up for a year in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London.
Snowden, in an interview with the Guardian, floated the idea of asylum in Iceland, which has historically provided a haven for whistleblowers and never granted a U.S. extradition request.
Johannes Skulason, an Icelandic government official, told the Associated Press on Wednesday that WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson had held informal talks with assistants at the Interior Ministry and the prime minister’s office.
Skulason said Hrafnsson “presented his case that he was in contact with Snowden and wanted to see what the legal framework was like.”
But the United States could try to prevent Snowden from traveling by asking the International Criminal Police Organization, or Interpol, to put out a “red notice,” which is a bulletin for international fugitives and which alerts about 190 countries that there is an outstanding warrant for Snowden’s arrest.
Snowden could also apply for asylum in another country’s embassy in Hong Kong, as Assange did in London. Or he could make an asylum claim in Hong Kong after his travel visa expires in mid-August or if the U.S. government requests his surrender.
If he does apply for asylum, Snowden will be stumbling into a labyrinthine system criticized by human rights lawyers as dysfunctional and inefficient.
Hong Kong did not sign the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, and so the government has no obligation to process refugee claims. Instead, it relies mostly on the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ office in Hong Kong, which is underderstaffed and has a backlog of asylum requests. In cases in which the applicants claim that they may be tortured if sent home, the Hong Kong government reviews the case. An estimated 5,000 claims are being processed by both the UNHCR and the Hong Kong government.
“We have asylum seekers who have been in Hong Kong for years,” Young said.
Because the UNHCR and the Hong Kong government evaluate claims, Snowden could seek to have his asylum case reviewed by both. Complicating the picture are two recent court cases mandating that Hong Kong consolidate its refugee system and establish a new process.
“I think Mr. Snowden is much wiser from a legal perspective than many people initially gave him credit for,” McNabb said. “I think he’s thought about this for a long time.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.