Confirming a report in the Washington Post, the official said a sealed criminal complaint had been lodged with a federal court in the US state of Virginia and a provisional arrest warrant had been issued. Snowden was charged with espionage, theft and "conversion of government property".
10-YEAR PRISON PENALTY
A report on NBC News said he was accused of sharing classified documents with individuals who were not cleared to received them.
The one-page criminal complaint was filed under seal on June 14 in the US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, and made public on Friday evening by government officials.
An accompanying affidavit in support of the charges, prepared and signed by FBI Special Agent John A Kralik Jr, remained under seal.
The criminal complaint said Snowden engaged in unauthorised communication of national defence information, wilful communication of classified communications intelligence information - both charges under the Espionage Act - and the theft of government property.
All three crimes carry a maximum 10-year prison penalty.
The 30-year-old technician fled Hawaii on May 20 and flew to Hong Kong, an autonomous Chinese territory, from where he proceeded to leak details of secret US intelligence programs to international media outlets.
The leaks embarrassed US President Barack Obama's administration, which was forced to defend US intelligence agencies' practice of gathering huge amounts of phone and internet data from private users around the world.
Following reports of the sealed complaint, all eyes will turn to Hong Kong and Beijing to see whether China will agree to help the US by complying with the provisional warrant and holding Snowden.
A US government official, speaking anonymously because the case is still under investigation, told McClatchy newspapers that officials hope the charges will be enough to satisfy authorities in Hong Kong to begin the extradition process.
That process could become bogged down if Snowden fights extradition and argues that he is being singled out and prosecuted for political reasons.
'GETTING UNDER WAY'
The official said that a more formal, federal grand jury indictment against Snowden was likely to follow later in the northern summer. "We're just getting under way," the US official said.
The US and Hong Kong have a standing agreement on the surrender of fugitives. However, Snowden's appeal rights could drag out any extradition proceeding. The success or failure of any extradition proceeding depends on what the suspect is charged with under US law and how it corresponds to Hong Kong law under the treaty.
For Hong Kong officials to honour the extradition request, they have to have some applicable statute under their law that corresponds with a violation of US law. Snowden has told the Guardian that he might seek asylum in Iceland, which has strong internet freedom laws, but he is thought to still be in Hong Kong and might now find it difficult to travel.
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