Virginia court, home to spying and cyber cases, to hear Snowden case

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The federal court in Virginia where the Justice Department has decided to charge Edward Snowden with leaking secrets about U.S. surveillance programs has a long track record of hearing cases related not only to national security cases but also to cyber crime.

The United States filed a criminal complaint including charges under a U.S. espionage law against Snowden, a former U.S. National Security Agency contractor, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The charges are the government’s first step in an effort to arrest and extradite Snowden from Hong Kong, where he is in hiding, to try him in the United States.

Snowden has acknowledged leaking secrets about classified U.S. surveillance programs to the Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper. On Saturday, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post said Snowden had divulged information to the newspaper showing how computers in Hong Kong and China had been targeted.

On Friday, the Guardian reported that documents made available by Snowden showed that Britain’s electronic eavesdropping agency, known as GCHQ, downloaded masses of data from telecommunications cables it had tapped into.

In the past 20 years, the U.S. government has racked up remarkable success rates in winning convictions or guilty pleas from people brought before the federal court in Virginia who were accused of espionage or terrorism. Because of its speed, the court is considered a “rocket docket.”

But its most high-profile cyber case - that of accused copyright pirate Kim Dotcom - has proved a tougher nut to crack.

The U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Neil MacBride, has worked as chief counsel to then-Senator Joe Biden, as a prosecutor in Washington handling homicide and other criminal cases, and as a general counsel for the anti-software piracy group Business Software Alliance.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia is where the government charged Russian spies like former CIA officer Aldrich Ames in 1994 and former FBI agent Robert Hanssen in 2001; and Zacarias Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty to an al Qaeda conspiracy linked to the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon, outside Washington.

Its Norfolk court is where the Justice Department prosecuted five Somalis accused of piracy in attacking the USS Ashland in 2010 off the coast of Africa. They were convicted and are scheduled to be sentenced next month.

Sources say the same court has had a grand jury probe underway of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange after the website put online confidential U.S. documents allegedly acquired by U.S. soldier Bradley Manning. Court papers show that prosecutors in the Eastern District have subpoenaed message records generated by some of Assange’s contacts or associates.

Manning is being court-martialed in connection with the case while Assange has taken refuge in Ecuador’s Embassy in London, trying to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faces allegations of sexual assault, or the United States.

In addition to espionage cases, the court is also where the U.S. government has opted to try some of the biggest cyber crime cases - like the prosecution of Kim Dotcom’s Hong Kong company Megaupload for what is alleged to be a massive scheme to help users swap pirated movies and music.

While the espionage cases led to convictions, the Megaupload case has hit some rocky shoals in a battle over whether prosecutors properly notified defendants in the case. Kim Dotcom is fighting extradition from New Zealand.

An extradition hearing is scheduled for August, but may be delayed due to separate cases linked to another court ruling that unlawful warrants were used in the police raid.

Reporting by Diane Bartz; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and Nate Raymond; Editing by Eric Beech