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Edward Snowden Espionage Case

Former NSA Contractor Accused of Espionage and Theft of Government Property


Edward Snowden speaks during an interview
Handout/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The Edward Snowden espionage case deals with is a former intelligence contractor for the United States who was charged in May 2013 with espionage and theft of government records after exposing a massive National Security Agency surveillance program known as PRISM. He later sought refuge from the charges in Ecuador.

Espionage Charges Against Edward Snowden

The specific sections of the U.S. Code Snowden is accused of violating are:

  • 18 USC § 641 – Theft of government property
  • 18 USC § 793(d) – Unauthorized communication of national defense information
  • 18 USC 798(a)(3) – Willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person

What Crime Snowden Was Not Charged With

Snowden was not charged with treason, a far more serious crime punishable by death in the United States. Treason entails "levying War" against the United States or "adhering" to its enemies, giving them "Aid and Comfort."

Nor was Snowden charged with a section of the U.S. Code that criminalizes "gathering or delivering defense information to aid foreign government." That crime is described in the Espionage Act of 1917 and can carry the death penalty. The Espionage Act makes it a crime to help wartime enemies and forbids the use of "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the government during times of war.

What Snowden Did

Snowden disclosed to the news media the existence of a a top secret computer program used by the National Security Agency to collect and analyze massive volumes of private data stored on servers operated by Internet service providers and held by large web companies including Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple in 2013.

The leaks included documentation that reportedly showed judges on the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court signed off on orders allowing the NSA to use information inadvertently collected from communications between American citizens without a warrant.

Penalties in Criminal Case Against Snowden

The criminal case against Snowden, if proven, could lead to a prison term of at least 10 years and at most 30 years. Each of the three charges against him carry a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. If convicted of each crime, Snowden could get concurrent sentences, meaning he's serve just a decade in prison. If convicted of all three, he could also be sentenced to successive sentences, meaning he's be locked up for three decades.

Calls for Treason Charge

Many members of Congress said they believed Snowden was a traitor and should have been charged with treason. The chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, said: "I don’t look at this as being a whistleblower. I think it’s an act of treason."

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, said: "Edward Snowden is not a whistle-blower. What Edward Snowden did amounts to an Act of Treason. And the Department of Justice should bring charges against him for deliberately taking classified information and leaking it in such a way that our enemies can use it against us.

Reaction from Snowden

Snowden sought to escape criminal charges by seeking refuge initially in Hong Kong. But he later sought asylum in Ecuador with the help of WikiLeaks.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Snowden said he understood the risks of imprisonment. "I could not do this without accepting the risk of prison. You can't come up against the world's most powerful intelligence agencies and not accept the risk. If they want to get you, over time they will," Snowden said.

He said he was encouraged, however, by the outrage at the government surveillance programs. "I think the sense of outrage that has been expressed is justified. It has given me hope that, no matter what happens to me, the outcome will be positive for America. I do not expect to see home again, though that is what I want."

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