WASHINGTON — The Justice Department can't criminally prosecute former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden as long as he's living in Russia, so the US government is going after his money in the meantime.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, the Justice Department accused Snowden of breaching secrecy agreements he signed when he worked for the NSA and the CIA by publishing a new book and giving speeches about his time working for the government without getting the required preapproval. The feds are moving to seize any money Snowden earns or is owed from the book or his public appearances.
In 2013, federal prosecutors charged Snowden with espionage and theft of government property after he leaked a trove of documents to journalists that shed new light on the NSA's surveillance efforts. But Snowden had already fled the country and is now living in Moscow, putting him out of reach of the US criminal justice system.
With the criminal case in limbo, the Justice Department's civil lawsuit reflects a new approach. The complaint, filed in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia makes clear that the government isn't trying to stop publication or distribution of Snowden's book — they just don't want him earning any money from it. They point to secrecy agreements Snowden signed when he worked for the CIA and the NSA — the NSA agreement specifically covers the release of classified or potentially classified information, while the CIA agreement includes broader language that covers classified materials as well as information about "intelligence data or activities."
On Aug. 1, Snowden announced on Twitter that he had a new book coming out, called Permanent Record. According to DOJ's lawsuit, Snowden's publisher, Macmillan Publishers Inc., announced in a press release that the book would be about Snowden's experience working for the CIA and NSA, and what led him to leak information about the US surveillance program. Snowden did not submit the book for prepublication review, according to the lawsuit.
The Justice Department is also going after any money Snowden has earned from his speaking engagements, citing news reports that he'd earned hundreds of thousands of dollars from those appearances in recent years. Those public remarks also weren't submitted for prereview, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit names Macmillan and its parent company Holtzbrinck Publishers LLC as defendants along with Snowden — the Justice Department has asked a judge to freeze any money the publisher owes Snowden or is holding for him, and to order those funds turned over to the government. According to the lawsuit, the government doesn't know the details of Snowden's financial arrangement with Macmillan.
"The United States’ ability to protect sensitive national security information depends on employees’ and contractors’ compliance with their nondisclosure agreements, including their prepublication review obligations," Jody Hunt, head of the Justice Department's Civil Division, said in a statement. "This lawsuit demonstrates that the Department of Justice does not tolerate these breaches of the public’s trust. We will not permit individuals to enrich themselves, at the expense of the United States, without complying with their prepublication review obligations."
Snowden's lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union, Ben Wizner, said in a statement that Snowden's book doesn't include any "government secrets" that weren't already reported by news outlets.
"Had Mr. Snowden believed that the government would review his book in good faith, he would have submitted it for review. But the government continues to insist that facts that are known and discussed throughout the world are still somehow classified," Wizner said. “Mr. Snowden wrote this book to continue a global conversation about mass surveillance and free societies that his actions helped inspire. He hopes that today’s lawsuit by the United States government will bring the book to the attention of more readers throughout the world."
A spokesperson for Macmillan Publishers did not immediately return a request for comment.