Lavabit.com owner: 'I could be arrested' for resisting order

Michael Isikoff, NBC News

The owner of an encrypted email service used by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden said he has been threatened with criminal charges for refusing to comply with a secret surveillance order to turn over information about his customers.

"I could be arrested for this action," Ladar Levison told NBC News about his decision to shut down his company, Lavabit, in protest over a secret court order he had received from a federal court that is overseeing the investigation into Snowden.

Levison said he was barred by federal law from elaborating on the order or any of his communications with federal prosecutors. But a source familiar with the matter told NBC News that James Trump, a senior litigation counsel in the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria, Va., sent an email to Levison's lawyer last Thursday—the day Lavabit was shuttered—stating that Levison may have "violated the court order," a statement that was interpreted as a possible threat to charge Levison with contempt of court.

Trump, who has been a lead attorney on high-profile leak investigations targeting former CIA officers John Kiriakou and Jeffrey Sterling, did not respond to a request for comment, nor did prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office, whose prosecutors have charged Snowden with violations of the Espionage Act.

"We have no comment," said Andrew Ames, a spokesman for the Justice Department.

Levison, a 32-year-old entrepreneur who ran his company out of a Dallas apartment, said in a public statement last Thursday that he made "the difficult decision" to shut down Lavabit because he did not want "to become complicit in crimes against the American people."

(Read more: Leaker Snowden riles hacker conferences)

The court order that prompted the action is believed by legal observers to be a sealed subpoena or a national security letter requiring him to cooperate in surveillance related to the Snowden investigation.

Recipients of such legal orders are barred from publicly comment on them. Levison said he believes this prohibition is a violation of his First Amendment rights while the underlying request violated the Fourth Amendment rights of his customers.

"I'm fighting it in every way," said Levison, adding that he is challenging the government's action in a federal appeals court.

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