Speculation has mounted this week that NSA leaker Edward Snowden might leave Hong Kong for Iceland, removing a small but buzzing fly from the ointment of Sino-U.S. relations and possibly defusing accusations of spying for China. Whistle-blowing organization WikiLeaks, whose founder Julian Assange has himself sheltered from extradition in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for over a year, now says that it has arranged a charter flight to take Snowden to possible sanctuary. From the AFP:
“Everything is ready on our side and the plane could take off tomorrow,” Icelandic businessman Olafur Sigurvinsson, head of WikiLeaks partner firm DataCell, told Channel2 television.
[…] The private jet belongs to a Chinese firm and has been chartered at a cost of more than US$240,000 thanks to individual contributions received by Datacell, he said.
[…] However, observers say Iceland’s new centre-right coalition may be less willing to anger the United States than its leftist predecessor.
Interior Minister Hanna Kristjansdottir said on Tuesday that the government did not feel bound by a 2010 resolution by parliament seeking to make the country a safe haven for journalists and whistleblowers from around the globe. [Source]
China Real Time reported on Wednesday that journalist and WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson had informally approached Icelandic authorities on Snowden’s behalf. Even without a privately chartered WikiJet, it noted, Snowden might be able to find safe passage to Iceland via Switzerland, Austria or Russia, which has previously offered him shelter.
Sigurvinsson said that in any case, Snowden would need a ‘green light’ from Reykjavik before heading to Iceland: “It would be stupid to come here only to be extradited to the United States. In that case he’d be better off where he is.” But as Hrafnsson pointed out to CNN’s Hilary Whiteman, no formal asylum application or decision can be made until Snowden is on Icelandic soil. Whiteman examined a number of possible scenarios for Snowden, from relocating to Iceland to seeking U.N. refugee status or asylum in Hong Kong. The worst case scenario from his point of view, she concluded, might be arrest in Hong Kong under a U.S.-issued warrant. But even then, wrote Sari Horwitz and Jia Lynn Yang at The Washington Post, extraditing him could be a lengthy and tangled process:
“There are a number of hurdles that the government will have to jump through before Snowden will ever end up in a U.S. courtroom,” said Stephen I. Vladeck, an associate dean at American University’s Washington College of Law who studies national security law.
In the end, the ability to bring the former National Security Agency contractor back to the United States will come down to legal maneuvering and creative diplomacy, Vladeck said.
“The dirty little secret about extradition law,” he said, “is it’s really about 90 percent politics and only 10 percent law.”
[…] “I think Mr. Snowden is much wiser from a legal perspective than many people initially gave him credit for,” [extradition specialist Douglas] McNabb said. “I think he’s thought about this for a long time.” [Source]
In a live public Q&A at The Guardian on Monday, Snowden explained why he had chosen Hong Kong over Iceland in the first place:
Leaving the US was an incredible risk, as NSA employees must declare their foreign travel 30 days in advance and are monitored. There was a distinct possibility I would be interdicted en route, so I had to travel with no advance booking to a country with the cultural and legal framework to allow me to work without being immediately detained. Hong Kong provided that. Iceland could be pushed harder, quicker, before the public could have a chance to make their feelings known, and I would not put that past the current US administration. [Source]
One consequence of this decision has been the suggestion that Snowden might defect to China in exchange for sensitive information, or have had ties to Chinese intelligence all along. Former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton have been among those voicing such suspicions, which China has dismissed as “completely groundless”. From Tania Branigan at The Guardian:
Spokeswoman Hua Chunying, speaking at a regular press briefing on Monday, also urged the US to “pay attention to the international community’s concerns and demands and give … the necessary explanation” of its surveillance activities.
Her remarks were in response to questions from two state media organisations. She had previously declined to comment on the 29-year-old’s case, or his claims that the US had hacked targets in Hong Kong and on the Chinese mainland.
On Sunday former US vice president Dick Cheney told Fox News that Snowden was a “traitor” and questioned his decision to travel to Hong Kong.
“I’m suspicious because he went to China. That’s not a place where you would ordinarily want to go if you are interested in freedom, liberty and so forth,” Cheney said, adding: “It raises questions whether or not he had that kind of connection before he did this.” [Source]
In the Guardian Q&A, Snowden denied the accusations himself, insisting that he had had no contact with the Chinese government, and launching a scathing counterattack on Cheney:
This is a predictable smear that I anticipated before going public, as the US media has a knee-jerk “RED CHINA!” reaction to anything involving HK or the PRC, and is intended to distract from the issue of US government misconduct. Ask yourself: if I were a Chinese spy, why wouldn’t I have flown directly into Beijing? I could be living in a palace petting a phoenix by now. [Source]
Further, it’s important to bear in mind I’m being called a traitor by men like former Vice President Dick Cheney. This is a man who gave us the warrantless wiretapping scheme as a kind of atrocity warm-up on the way to deceitfully engineering a conflict that has killed over 4,400 and maimed nearly 32,000 Americans, as well as leaving over 100,000 Iraqis dead. Being called a traitor by Dick Cheney is the highest honor you can give an American, and the more panicked talk we hear from people like him, Feinstein, and King, the better off we all are. If they had taught a class on how to be the kind of citizen Dick Cheney worries about, I would have finished high school. [Source]
Snowden’s colorful turn of phrase now threatens to embed itself in the lexicon of China-watching:
For better or worse, 'petting a Phoenix' is now and forever more THE favored & most delightful euphemism for 'spying for China.'
— Adam Minter (@AdamMinter) June 17, 2013
Today's Chinese: 抚摸凤凰 (fǔ mō fèng huáng) "petting a phoenix." Coined 2013. To be the recipient of a state's favor after defecting.
— Liz Carter (@withoutdoing) June 17, 2013
— That's Beijing (@Thats_Beijing) June 19, 2013
— Alistair Gentry (@AlistairGentry) June 19, 2013
Lets fire up the Wikileaks jet/&flee the dark CIA threat/Hong Kong prospects are bleak/for a fugitive geek/who needs a new phoenix to pet
— Leo Lewis (@Urbandirt) June 21, 2013