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Threats overview

Edward Snowden has been charged by the US government with theft, “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person”. The last two charges fall under the 1917 Espionage Act.

Each of the three charges carry a maximum of ten years in prison plus a fine, totalling a possible 30-year sentence. It is possible that further charges may be brought against Snowden.

The US administration has already taken many actions towards the extradition of Edward Snowden. Not only have arrest and extradition warrants been issued to numerous countries, but US officials have also personally pressured political leaders and threatened to cut trade benefits for failure to pursue Snowden’s extradition. People who have assisted, or are suspected of associating with, Snowden have also been put at risk or harassed, including WikiLeaks journalist Sarah Harrison, who accompanied Edward Snowden during his transit from Hong Kong to Moscow, and journalist Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda, who was detained for nine hours under the UK’s Terrorism Act while transiting through Heathrow airport.

Edward Snowden risks an unfair trial as there is no public interest or whistleblower exception under the Espionage Act. This means Snowden would be unable to use his intent as a defence. In an interview, he explained the reasoning behind his revelations: “I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”

Snowden is not only at risk of legal punishments, but physical as well. Despite a letter from US Attorney-General Eric Holder that Edward Snowden would not be subject to the death penalty or torture, Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, notes that these comments are “meaningless“. On the subject of torture Mr Ratner commented:

“Think about how the US defines torture. The US doesn’t really think that anything it did under the Bush era was torture, with the exception possibly of waterboarding. So that means Ed Snowden can be subjected to every enhanced interrogation techniques – you know, lights on all the time, loud noise, cold temperatures, hot temperatures, strapped into a chair. All of the, quote, ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ are allowed under US view of torture.” He also commented: “It doesn’t say anything in the letter [that the US] won’t put him into some underground cell and keep him there the rest of his life.”

To understand the threats against Edward Snowden, one need look no further than the other whistleblowers who have been prosecuted by the Obama administration. The Obama adminsitration boasts about the fact that they have “prosecuted twice as many cases under the Espionage Act as all other administrations combined”. A notable case is that of Chelsea Manning, who after three years of pretrial detainment, including under unlawful conditions, was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

The Obama administration’s crackdown on national security journalism and its whistleblowers has been escalating for some time and Edward Snowden’s revelations place him in the crosshairs.


Full criminal complaint against Edward Snowden

U.S. vs. Edward J. Snowden criminal complaint


Detailed information on the three charges against Edward Snowden

18 USC § 641 – Public money, property or records

18 USC § 793(d) – Gathering, transmitting or losing defense information

18 USC § 798(a)(3) – Disclosure of classified information