The case of Edward Snowden, the admitted NSA leaker, creates a dilemma for the U.S. government. Ordinarily, a person who commits a crime in the U.S. is formally charged with the crime or crimes committed. If the accused has fled the country, those charges form the basis of a request for extradition to the U.S. to stand trial. Snowden has yet to be formally charged. What makes Snowden's case unusual is that charges involving unauthorized disclosure of classified information could trigger the "political offense exception" to extradition. And therein lies the rub.
The political offense exception is found in most international extradition treaties. It is based on a concept, developed in the nineteenth century and still applied today, that political offenders – a term that lacks a universal definition – should be shielded from extradition. The extradition treaty between the U.S. and Hong Kong (where Snowden is believed to be) contains such an exception. This concept is distinct from that of asylum based on fear of persecution or mistreatment.