NSA Whistleblower Seeks Safety in Hong Kong (Updated)

The leak that recently revealed the U.S. National Security Agency’s court-ordered  of Verizon call detail records, as well as U.S. Internet firms’ alleged cooperation with government agencies, resurrected concerns over the reach of the USA Patriot Act, and carried criticisms of a Bush-era practice over to the Obama administration. In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, the whistleblower behind the leak has revealed his identity and current location: 29-year-old former CIA technical assistant Edward Snowden has been holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room since leaving the U.S. on May 20. From The Guardian:

On May 20, he boarded a flight to , where he has remained ever since. He chose the city because “they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent”, and because he believed that it was one of the few places in the world that both could and would resist the dictates of the US government.

In the three weeks since he arrived, he has been ensconced in a hotel room. “I’ve left the room maybe a total of three times during my entire stay,” he said. It is a plush hotel and, what with eating meals in his room too, he has run up big bills.

He is deeply worried about being spied on. He lines the door of his hotel room with pillows to prevent eavesdropping. He puts a large red hood over his head and laptop when entering his passwords to prevent any hidden cameras from detecting them.

Though that may sound like paranoia to some, Snowden has good reason for such fears. He worked in the US intelligence world for almost a decade. He knows that the biggest and most secretive surveillance organisation in America, the NSA, along with the most powerful government on the planet, is looking for him. [Source]

In the above-linked article’s accompanying video interview, Snowden denied potential allegations that he chose a destination under Beijing’s sovereignty in an attempt to “aid an enemy of the United States.” While Snowden said his choice of the semi-autonomous PRC Special Administration Region is due to its “spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent,” Guardian diplomatic editor Julian Borgen notes the riskiness of Snowden choosing Hong Kong as his hopeful haven:

Just before sovereignty over Hong Kong passed from Britain to China in 1997, the US signed a new extradition treaty with the semi-autonomous territory. Under that treaty, both parties agree to hand over fugitives from each other’s criminal justice systems, but either side has the right of refusal in the case of political offences.

Beijing, which gave its consent for Hong Kong to sign the agreement, also has a right of veto if it believes the surrender of a fugitive would harm the “defence, foreign affairs or essential public interest or policy” of the People’s Republic of China. In short, the treaty makes Snowden’s fate a matter of political expediency not just in Hong Kong but in Beijing.

[…]The combination of a comparatively liberal civic culture and the sovereignty of Beijing, America’s great Pacific rival with which it has an often testy relationship, seems to have been a factor in Snowden’s choice of Hong Kong. It may play to his advantage that Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping reportedly agreed to differ on cybersecurity issues in their weekend summit in California. Against this background, Snowden’s extradition might be seen in the party leadership in Beijing as a capitulation. But such calculations can change. [Source]

Also see the full text of the U.S.-Hong Kong Extradition Treaty, mentioned above. Talking Points Memo also analyzes Snowden’s choice to land in Hong Kong, a locale that editor Josh Marshal characterizes as a “really, really curious destination”:

[Snowden] seems to be hoping to evade the criminal consequences by defecting to China, a key US rival and one that comes up rather short of being the kind of libertarian and transparent society Snowden apparently believes in.

[…O]f all the places where you might have a shot at not getting extradited, China’s not a bad choice. Hong Kong might even give you the best of both worlds, hosted by repressive government which is a US rival and yet living in a city with Western standards of openness, wealth, etc.

But the decision to go to China inevitably colors his decision and sets up what could be a very uncomfortable diplomatic stand-off. I’ve seen people linking to the current US-Hong Kong extradition treaty. Call me naive but I think this is going to come down to how Beijing wants to play this. If they don’t want a fight over this, Snowden’s toast. If they like the optics of it, I don’t think it matters what that extradition treaty says. China’s a big enough player and the US has enough other fish to fry with the Chinese, that the US is not going to put the bilateral relationship on the line over this guy. And the Chinese might relish granting asylum to an American running from the claws of US ‘state repression’. [Source]

Update: In the Atlantic, James Fallows lauds Snowden’s actions but expresses dismay at his choice of Hong Kong for refuge:

I am sorry that Snowden chose Hong Kong as his point of refuge. To be clear: I love Hong Kong.

[…] But here is the reality. Hong Kong is not a sovereign country. It is part of China — a country that by the libertarian standards says he cares about is worse, not better, than the United States. China has even more surveillance of its citizens (it has gone very far toward ensuring that it knows the real identity of everyone using the internet); its press is thoroughly government-controlled; it has no legal theory of protection for free speech; and it doesn’t even have national elections. Hong Kong lives a time-limited separate existence, under the “one country, two systems” principle, but in a pinch, it is part of China.

I don’t know all the choices Snowden had about his place of refuge. Maybe he thought this was his only real option. But if Snowden thinks, as some of his comments seem to suggest, that he has found a bastion of freer speech, then he is ill-informed; and if he knowingly chose to make his case from China he is playing a more complicated game.

See also a video from the Wall Street Journal about his decision to release the classified documents from Hong Kong: