The charges are the government’s first step in what could be a long legal battle to return Snowden from Hong Kong, where he is believed to be in hiding, and try him in a US court. A Hong Kong newspaper said he was under police protection, but the territory’s authorities declined to comment.
Snowden was charged with theft of government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorised person, said the criminal complaint, which was dated 14 June.
The latter two offences fall under the US Espionage Act and carry penalties of fines and up to 10 years in prison.
A single page of the complaint was unsealed on Friday. An accompanying affidavit remained under seal.
Two US sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States was preparing to seek Snowden’s extradition from Hong Kong, which is part of China but has wide-ranging autonomy, including an independent judiciary.
The Washington Post, which first reported the criminal complaint earlier on Friday, said the United States had asked Hong Kong to detain Snowden on a provisional arrest warrant.