By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON, June 22 (Reuters) - Edward Snowden was in a "safe place" in Hong Kong, a newspaper reported on Saturday, as the United States prepared to seek the extradition of the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor after filing espionage charges against him.
The South China Morning Post said Snowden, who has exposed secret U.S. surveillance programs including new details published on Saturday about alleged hacking of Chinese phone companies, was not in police protection in Hong Kong, as had been reported elsewhere.
"Contrary to some reports, the former CIA analyst has not been detained, is not under police protection but is in a 'safe place' in Hong Kong," the newspaper said.
Hong Kong Police Commissioner Andy Tsang declined to comment other than to say Hong Kong would deal with the case in accordance with the law.
Two U.S. 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 United States charged Snowden with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person, according to the criminal complaint made public on Friday.
The latter two offenses fall under the U.S. Espionage Act and carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison.
America's use of the Espionage Act against Snowden has fueled debate among legal experts about whether that could complicate his extradition, since Hong Kong courts may choose to shield him.
Snowden says he leaked the details of the classified U.S. surveillance to expose abusive programs that trampled on citizens' rights.
Documents leaked by Snowden revealed that the NSA has access to vast amounts of internet data such as emails, chat rooms and video from large companies such as Facebook and Google, under a government program known as Prism.
They also showed that the government had worked through the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to gather so-called metadata - such as the time, duration and telephone numbers called - on all calls carried by service providers such as Verizon.
On Friday, the Guardian newspaper, citing documents shared by Snowden, said Britain's spy agency GCHQ had tapped fiber-optic cables that carry international phone and internet traffic and is sharing vast quantities of personal information with the NSA.
The South China Morning Post said on Saturday that Snowden offered new details on U.S. surveillance activities in China.
The paper said documents and statements by Snowden show the NSA program had hacked major Chinese telecoms companies to access text messages and targeted China's top Tsinghua University.
The NSA program also hacked the Hong Kong headquarters of Pacnet, which has an extensive fiber-optic network, it said.
"The NSA does all kinds of things like hack Chinese cellphone companies to steal all of your SMS data," Snowden was quoted by the Post as saying during a June 12 interview.
President Barack Obama and his intelligence chiefs have vigorously defended the programs, saying they are regulated by law and that Congress was notified. They say the programs have been used to thwart militant plots and do not target Americans' personal lives.
Since making his revelations about massive U.S. surveillance programs, Edward Snowden, 30, has sought legal representation from human rights lawyers as he prepares to fight U.S. attempts to force him home for trial, sources in Hong Kong say.
The United States and Hong Kong signed an extradition treaty in 1998, under which scores of Americans have been sent back home to face trial.
The United States and Hong Kong have "excellent cooperation" and as a result of agreements, "there is an active extradition relationship between Hong Kong and the United States," a U.S. law enforcement official told Reuters.
However, the process can take years, lawyers say, and Snowden's case could be particularly complex.
An Icelandic businessman linked to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said on Thursday he had readied a private plane in China to fly Snowden to Iceland if Iceland's government would grant asylum.
Iceland refused on Friday to say whether it would grant asylum to Snowden. (Reporting by Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by James Pomfret, Venus Wu and Grace Li in HONG KONG, Tabassum Zakaria and Mark Hosenball in WASHINGTON; Editing by Eric Beech)