Edward Snowden Comes Forward as NSA Whistle-Blower, Surfaces in Hong Kong

The decision of now infamous whistle-blower Edward Snowden to seek sanctuary in Hong Kong has raised eyebrows

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If you were on the run from the U.S. government, where would you choose to lay low? For PRISM whistleblower Edward Snowden, the answer is Hong Kong. Many are trying to figure out why.

The 29-year-old revealed large-scale surveillance of Internet user data by the National Security Agency, in a program known as PRISM, during an interview with the Guardian newspaper — and has been holed-up in a comfortable hotel in the Chinese Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong for the past three weeks. The city undoubtedly has the “strong tradition of free speech” that Snowden asserts, but with its autonomy being gradually eroded, Hong Kong is hardly the most obvious beacon of freedom. Even if it were, there must be major doubt that Beijing would approve of the Hong Kong authorities offering Snowden a safe haven. It may frequently spar with Washington on a range of issues, but China has little to gain in blocking attempts to extradite a man swiftly soaring to the top of its rival superpower’s “most wanted” list.

(MORE: Four Things to Know About Surveillance Leaker Edward Snowden)

Snowden, a former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, landed in Hong Kong on May 20. He subsequently revealed reams of classified information on the controversial and classified PRISM program, garnered from a government office in Hawaii. The revelations came just as new Chinese President Xi Jinping met Barack Obama for the first time over the weekend. The treatment of former intelligence officer Bradley Manning, kept in solitary confinement for much of his three years’ detention before finally coming to trial last week, as well as the ongoing pursuit of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, indicate that the White House is unlikely to go easy on attempts to bring Snowden back to U.S. soil.

Republicans have already called for his speedy repatriation to answer various charges, which could include treason and (à la Manning) aiding the enemy. Hong Kong and the U.S. maintain a bilateral extradition treaty signed in 1997. There are special exceptions for political crimes, but human-rights activists point to past extraditions from the territory apparently driven by pressure from Washington, most notoriously that of Libyan dissident Sami al-Saadi, who in 2004 was placed upon a secret rendition flight from Hong Kong to Tripoli, allegedly planned and executed by the U.K., U.S. and Libyan governments. (He is currently taking legal action after being tortured by the Gaddafi regime.) Some commentaries, like one written by James Fallows in the Atlantic, paint Hong Kong as a political cipher, acting at the beck and call of Beijing’s communist administration as well as obliging Western powers.

(MORE: Obama Administration Declassifies Details on PRISM, Blasts ‘Reckless’ Media and Leakers)

However, local experts emphasize Hong Kong’s legal independence. Professor Simon Young, director of Hong Kong University’s Centre for Comparative and Public Law, says he “doesn’t see any chance” that Beijing could assume jurisdiction of any proceedings relevant to the Snowden case. “Although Hong Kong is not bound by the Refugee Convention, a recent decision from our Court of Final Appeal held that the Hong Kong government must independently assess whether an individual’s refugee claim is well founded,” he tells TIME. In other words, all persons landing in Hong Kong with a bona fide claim to refugee status will not be returned to a place where they may be persecuted.

Whether bringing charges against Snowden for revealing seemingly unconstitutional surveillance operations amounts to “persecution” will, of course, be a matter of intense debate. Currently, the UNHCR’s office in Hong Kong considers refugee claims and the Hong Kong government respects the U.N. agency’s decisions on refugee status, says Kelley Loper of the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre. The U.S. treatment of Manning raised concerns with the U.N.’s torture expert and could make it less likely that Snowden will be extradited to face similar punishment. In addition, Ronny Tong, a Hong Kong Legislative Council member, tells TIME that Snowden could only be extradited if there were a local law equivalent to that he allegedly violated in the U.S.

(MORE: PRISM by the Numbers: A Guide to the Government’s Secret Internet Data-Mining Program)

The U.S. and Hong Kong authorities are not averse to cooperating on legal matters, as Kim Dotcom, the notorious Internet guru, discovered after founding his controversial file-sharing Megaupload.com website while living in the territory. He tweeted support for Snowden on Monday and urged the Hong Kong government “to be remembered as a place of good” by granting asylum and protection. Dotcom’s own experiences, however, do not augur well; his office was raided by 100 Hong Kong customs officials working with the FBI in 2011, and his assets were frozen. He then fled to New Zealand and is now fighting extradition to the U.S.

How long Snowden plans to remain in Hong Kong is unclear. He mentioned in his Guardian interview that he might eventually seek sanctuary in Iceland, praising “shared values” regarding Internet freedom. This begs the question why he is now gazing morosely at a well-thumbed room-service menu some 6,000 miles away. Initial noises from within the Reykjavík government, which previously offered sanctuary to WikiLeaks, indicate that it will at least hear Snowden’s case. Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir and Smari McCarthy, executive director of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, issued a joint statement saying that “we feel it is our duty to offer to assist and advise Mr. Snowden to the greatest of our ability” and are “already working on detailing the legal protocols required to apply for asylum.”

(MORE: PRISM Speculation and The Lord of the Rings: The ‘Palantir’ Connection)

However, whether a small and economically fragile nation like Iceland, which has much to gain from maintaining cordial relations with the world’s largest economy, will stick its neck out remains doubtful. Moreover, there are procedural issues; the Icelandic embassy in Beijing told the South China Morning Post that nobody could claim asylum until they were actually inside the country. “The terrible thing is [Snowden] is worried about his family, that they’ll be victimized,” Ewen MacAskill, one of the Guardian journalists who interviewed Snowden, told CNN. “He’s basically cut off from family.”

Snowden will have to make a move soon. Upon arriving in Hong Kong, he was almost certainly issued the standard 90-day tourist visa for U.S.-passport holders. This means he has until Aug. 18 to leave the territory or make some kind of diplomatic appeal. The local authorities are under no obligation to act until they receive an arrest warrant from the U.S. Department of Justice. This is surely just a matter of time, given that a criminal investigation was already under way on Sunday. And for now, the entire U.S. security and intelligence apparatus in Hong Kong will have its eyes glued on all the exits.

With reporting by Jennifer Cheng and Anjani Trivedi / Hong Kong

MORE: 7 Things to Know About the Government’s Secret Database of Telephone Data

94 comments
Lisa Johnson
Lisa Johnson

I will only tell you that if I were planning to be on the run, from anyone, I would surely not post my destination on Facebook.

Silen-cio Si Tjuella
Silen-cio Si Tjuella

I think it is not the right place. Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the U.S. So why go there in the first place?

JamesCole
JamesCole

What the government is doing, collecting data of this nature and scale on citizens, is not acceptable. No security concern is worth that great risk to future freedom, and I would never want the next generation to grow up accepting in complacence an America where the government ignores the Fourth Ammendment by constantly acquiring private data and will somehow, magically never, ever use it ignorantly, tyrannically, etc. It's more than that though. I have a NATURAL RIGHT to such private freedoms. Government isn't always this or that, it just doesn't get worse or better whith whomever is elected or whatever culture that dominates. We, as citizens, have to stand up and participate in the American Experiment. That's what Edward Snowden did, and I couldn't be more proud of his declared motives.

ErikRacpan
ErikRacpan

Chinese spy. This is high treason.

Shirley Farone
Shirley Farone

Well, he left Hong Kong today - now where is he?

Jack Carrenard
Jack Carrenard

He is meeting with Chinese agents before defecting to Red China.

Tim Adams
Tim Adams

I wouldn't hide, I would speak the truth and let my victory come in the court of law... but then again they keep killing everyone before they can have a trial, almost as if to mock justice.

Karyn Craw
Karyn Craw

I would tell you but then they might find me. ;D

Sherm
Sherm

Anyone for Cuba? 

Karen Baglin
Karen Baglin

Isn't Switzerland neutral territory? And they speak French (in some areas), so la Suisse.

Jeffrey Liu
Jeffrey Liu

如果在香港都不安全,去别的地方也没有什么意思。港府既然能顶住中央的压力,保护成千上万的反政府人士,那么对于这样一个人,他会得到基本的尊重。

John Adamowicz
John Adamowicz

Hang that little runt for high treason! The average american who has nothing to hide, doesn't care. It's the nutsos that they need to keep an eye on, and I'm all for it. In fact, you should probably be suspicious of anyone who is adamantly against this. They can listen to every one of my conversations w/ my mates so long as they nab a terrorist or two occasionally. I want the eye of Sauron perched right on top the white house

Carlos A. Martinez
Carlos A. Martinez

It would not be on he Time Mag FB since Time Mag was founded by CIA assets. Wasson was an asset. Do the research peeps.

Andy Pratt
Andy Pratt

It'd beat Cambodia, and that particular cities' history is interesting enough that if he has a chance in a near split decision risk (hardly doubt he planned on this for a decade or so), it'd most likely be there. Other locations would suffice, but he might have a better chance at starting over if not completely being deported back and sentenced. Such extremes being seemingly the only options there, he's got a 50/50 chance.

Joseph Desouza
Joseph Desouza

In the US .. they are too stupid to look in their own country .. hahahahahahahahahahahaha

Bruno M. Kebran
Bruno M. Kebran

Pakistan. .someone famous did it..you can't win...just hire a lawyer and stay home

Fastgirl
Fastgirl

He was only doing what the Obama administration has been telling all of us to do. "See something say something".

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

Can anyone say what the story is?  Another red herring story of some kind......most of us have been aware that Nsa definitely tabulates our phones/internet, and more likely listens to anyone they think is "of interest"; this has been going on legally since the Patriot Act and goes back to JE Hoover (not always legally).    All this loser has done is confirm some of the numbers/how/why.  Why does anyone put a 29 year old in such a position?  I say fire him, ignore him, make sure he never gets a decent job again, have the Irs audit him too.  He's a stupid kid thinking he's another Julian.  He's not.  Nothing I've heard from him sounded remotely surprising, and neither the administration or right wing (strange bedfellows) says it is illegal practice.      Gahhhhh.........

KountyKobbler
KountyKobbler

it najes one wonder if he was  a bell-view  resident  that needed the fancy whte coat that sleeves buckle in back  to keep him from harming himself or others.

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

Funny how everyone who dares to break his vow of secrecy is automatically granted a status of "whistleblower", as if this was an act of heroism. The acts perpetrated by the NSA were sanctioned under a law enacted in the standard democratic process applicable under USA constitution, which can be revoked as non-constitutional by the Supreme Court only, not by any disgruntled official. But the media is always happy to take advantage of a government embarrassment, be it Wikileaks, Vanunu, whatever. The Brits, in particular, are keen on revealing everyone else secrets with complete disregard to consequences. Just don't try to expose the dark shadows of their monarchic family.

Mark Murata
Mark Murata

It occurs to me that this leak undercut our charges against China on cyber hacking. After all, once this story broke, China could say, "What? You're going to charge us with hacking?" Furthermore, the fact that he went to China gives them leverage as China can now interrogate him and perhaps get some secrets from him. In their meeting, Obama and Xi said they wanted to form some sort of new relationship. This story seems to me to be a gift from the U.S. government to the Chinese government. Not sure what we got in return.

ScallywagNYC
ScallywagNYC

What a shame Snowden is forced to do the job that used to be the domain of journalists before they resorted to tabloid heroics and pr masquerades, which is to ask and uncover whether it is better that the public decide for itself what it should tolerate or want perpetuated in the guise for freedom and freedom of expression, rather than allowing the state or a handle of individuals to make those vital concerns for us...

What next? Perhaps a foreign embassy may want to take up Snowden's cause in a show of unity against imperialistic policy...

http://scallywagandvagabond.com/2013/06/will-edward-snowden-be-extradited-by-china-what-now/

Katy Shafigh
Katy Shafigh

IRAN definitely, US can't reach him easily!

Audra Kelley
Audra Kelley

Cause they probably paid him for the information

Joao Alexandrino
Joao Alexandrino

Every single american newspaper is either using the "hiding" or "running away" expression. As far as I can read (specially here in the european press), he publicly stated where he is. Furthermore, he seems to be waiting for the information to return to his country. So, who's running away again?

Mark Murata
Mark Murata

For whatever reason, when it comes to U.S. - China diplomatic relations, there is a history of people making a scene by trying to go to the other country. For example, Chen Guangcheng in 2011 and Fang Lizhi after Tiananmen. What's different about this time is that the persecuted went to China instead of the other way around.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

@Silen-cio Si Tjuella It was on his bucket list before he went away forever?

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

@JamesCole   Would you also be one of these fellas that believes in the right to bear arms in an unlimited fashion?  What world are you in?  I'm not a real friend of the war on terror but I understand fully that we do have people that wish us harm, and they are here in our country, planning their next stupid but deadly event.  I say stupid because they (so far) have lacked sophistication beyond hijacking airplanes and lighting their shoes or underwear on fire, but they do hurt and kill.  I don't like my phone or emails tapped, but I have nothing to hide either.  So what if they hear me talk about what an idiot W was?  But if they hear a loser talking with someone in Pakistan about how to build a bomb or contaminate a reservoir I hope they move quickly on the info.  To me that is the real problem in our war on terror, is that it is a war about making people rich instead of actually curtailing terror.  The agencies don't talk to each other and are very ineffective.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

@Jack Carrenard I hope he likes living there.  Gee, age 29, he's got a long way to go.  Stupid too, he could have stayed at his post leaking stuff for another 35 years.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

@SaniFornus   Wow, please define "hero" for me.  I think this guy was either a traitor, pawn, loser, moron, idiot, or stupid.  Or all of the above.  Hero doesn't work for me. 

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

@Tim Adams   You watch too many 007 and Bourne movies.  Who is that they are killing?  What truth is Snowden saying that we did not already know?  I assume you are American Tim, Mr. Snowden has cost us perhaps billions of dollars, perhaps exposed people to danger so that he could have his 15 minutes of fame.  What Nsa is doing, like it or not, is legal.  If you don't like it, you should get more involved in the political process, especially if you can go back in time to the election of 2000 and undo that abortion of an election. 

StephenSwain
StephenSwain

@Carlos A. Martinez Who told you that?  Time Magazine was not founded by CIA assets.  It was founded by Henry Luce and his partner more than 20 years before the CIA was chartered.  What have you been smoking, Carlos?

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

....and who is paying for his hotel and travel?  Track the $

lurch
lurch

@Joao Alexandrino 

 Edward Snowden

JamesCole
JamesCole

I am absolutely for gun reform. In fact, I'd rather there was a 28th Amendment that removed the 2nd. I recognize that intelligence operations that increase government surveillance over the American people are necessary to ensure our security, especially in a modern world of increasing danger. I wholeheartedly oppose, however, a government that by default collects ANY personal information on its citizens. I consider it a moral evil and an unwitting step toward tyranny. Those in government are too stupid and too cowardly to recognize that freedom is more important than security, and without the former … you’ll never have the latter. …. Policing is not the same as spying, and what the NSA is doing is basically Cold War stuff.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

@ErikRacpan @notLostInSpace @SaniFornus  and he was being paid $122000 and lived in Hawaii.  Man is this kid the definition of stupid.  I don't know about firing squad, that is rather old school.  I think letting him live in China for rest of life would be bad enough.