WASHINGTON As Justice Department officials moved Monday to charge Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former CIA computer technician, with disclosing classified information, he checked out of a hotel in Hong Kong where he had been holed up for several weeks, according to two U.S. officials. It was not clear where he went.
Whether Snowden has remained in Hong Kong or fled to another country – such as Iceland, where he has said he may seek asylum – the charges would strengthen the Justice Department’s hand if it tries to extradite him to the United States. One government typically must charge a suspect before another government will turn him over.
“There’s no hesitation” about charging Snowden, one of the U.S. officials said, saying the brazenness of the disclosures about some of the National Security Agency’s sensitive surveillance programs and Snowden’s admission in the newspaper The Guardian on Sunday left little doubt among law enforcement officials.
Officials at the White House, the Justice Department and intelligence agencies declined to comment Monday on the investigation and on Snowden.
In other developments, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who is the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee and has praised the effectiveness of the programs, said the panel would hold a closed briefing for all senators Thursday to hear from NSA, FBI and Justice Department officials. A similar closed hearing is scheduled for Tuesday in the House.
In Hong Kong, legal experts said the government was likely to turn over Snowden if it found him and the United States asked, although he could delay extradition, potentially for months, with court challenges, but probably could not block the process. The Hong Kong authorities have worked closely with U.S. law enforcement agencies for years and have usually accepted extradition requests under longstanding agreements, according to Regina Ip, a former secretary of security. The Mira Hotel said Snowden had stayed at the hotel but checked out Monday.
The NSA began trying to identify and locate the leaker when The Guardian published its first revelations Wednesday, and there were indications that agency officials considered Snowden a suspect from the start.
According to Kerri Jo Heim, a real estate agent who handled a recent sale of a Hawaii home that Snowden had been renting, the police came by the house Wednesday morning, perhaps even before The Guardian published its story. The police asked Heim if they knew Snowden’s whereabouts.
Whistle-blower advocacy groups championed Snowden and his disclosures Monday. A petition to pardon Snowden, posted on the White House website, attracted more than 25,000 electronic signatures by Monday afternoon.
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