ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
NPR has learned that the U.S. Department of Justice has prepared the documents to formally charge Edward Snowden with espionage. Snowden is the former contractor who has publicized details of two U.S. surveillance programs through the British newspaper The Guardian. NPR's Carrie Johnson joins us now with the latest, and Carrie, everyone's been waiting for this shoe to drop. What do we know about the government's plans to proceed?
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Robert, you're right. The leaks from this gentleman, this former NSA contractor named Edward Snowden had been dripping out for days and days now, and U.S. authorities have been under pressure to do something about them. This evening, the Washington Post reported, and we've now confirmed with different U.S. sources, that a field criminal complaint has been filed against Edward Snowden in the eastern district of Virginia. That complaint includes charges of espionage and theft of government property. And in connection with the filing of this complaint, U.S. officials have asked Hong Kong to execute a provisional arrest warrant and arrest Edward Snowden if they can find him in their territory.
SIEGEL: Let's talk about the charge, the charge of espionage. Snowden, so far as we know, leaked lots of documents to The Guardian, some to The Washington Post, but not to a foreign power, at least we don't think so directly. What was the thinking behind that charge and what might have been the alternatives?
JOHNSON: Robert, it's a really - a controversial thing to charge somebody under the Espionage Act because the Obama administration has already been under fire for charging more people under this old, World War I era law dating all the way back to 1917 than any other administration in history. One of the complications is that the law is so old it may not be as flexible to encompass some of the situations that happen today.
The other complication, Robert, is that it's not clear whether U.S. authorities under that law have the power to charge the people who publish those leaks, so The Guardian and The Washington Post could be in some jeopardy here. There's one thing that counters strongly against that, though, and that's the notion that Attorney General Eric Holder has already been raked over the coals on Capitol Hill several times this year for his department's overly aggressive treatment of journalists. And Holder has come out and said he does not want to criminalize the act of reporting.
SIEGEL: Now you said the U.S. is already talking to the authorities in Hong Kong, or requesting an arrest there. But do we actually know that he's still there? There was a news story earlier today, a wealthy, Icelandic admirer of Snowden's was offering to fly him there to Iceland.
JOHNSON: There was that story. That said, a member of the Icelandic Parliament has come out and said she has not heard from Snowden. She would not advise him to hop on a plane. And it's not at all clear that there's any legitimacy to that offer. U.S. authorities do believe he's still in Hong Kong. They've been working behind the scenes at the Justice Department and the FBI, Robert, for several days, to try to make sure that this request is done properly and done as smoothly as possible. That said, Robert, it could be a long while and involve a lot of winding roads before Edward Snowden ever comes back to the U.S. to face justice here.
SIEGEL: OK. NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thank you, Carrie.
JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.