Hold up in a hotel room in Hong Kong, Edward Snowden, the man who blew the lid on the NSA’s PRISM program, lamented he may never see home again. Barring a lifetime behind bars or worse, what options remain for one of history’s greatest whistleblowers?
Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, never intended to remain in the shadows.
“I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” he told the Guardian from his boutique hotel in Hong Kong, where he had remained ensconced for three weeks before reportedly checking out Monday afternoon.
In revealing the existence of PRISM, the National Security Agency’s (NSA) massive data mining surveillance program which gave the agency backdoor access to e-mails, videos, chats, photos and search queries from nine worldwide tech giants, was wishful thinking, Snowden expressed the fear his exposure would overshadow the greater issue at hand.
“I don’t want public attention because I don’t want the story to be about me. I want it to be about what the US government is doing,” he told the daily.
“I know the media likes to personalize political debates, and I know the government will demonize me,” he continued.
However, the firestorm which has ensued was all but inevitable.
Peter King, the chairman of the House homeland security subcommittee, was unequivocal in his condemnation of Snowden.
“If Edward Snowden did in fact leak the NSA data as he claims, the United States government must prosecute him to the fullest extent of the law and begin extradition proceedings at the earliest date,” King, a Republican lawmaker from New York, said in a written statement. “The United States must make it clear that no country should be granting this individual asylum. This is a matter of extraordinary consequence to American intelligence.”
Prior to Snowden’s decision to disclose his identity, the NSA had already filed a criminal report with the Justice Department following media leaks on Prism.
On Thursday, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence in the US, decried the leaks on the programs as “reprehensible,” claiming the unauthorized disclosure of information “risks important protections for the security of Americans.”
Based on Hong Kong’s 1996 extradition treaty with the US, if Snowden is in the city-state, his time there may be short lived.
On Monday, Regina Ip, formally Hong Kong’s top official overseeing security, told reporters it would be in Snowden’s “best interest to leave Hong Kong,” AFP reports.
Ip, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, said the city’s administration was “obliged to comply with the terms of agreements” with the US government, which included the extradition of fugitives.
However, she was unable to confirm whether the government had received an extradition request, adding: “I doubt it will happen so quickly.” The United States Consulate in Hong Kong has referred all questions to the Justice Department in Washington, which has only said that it is in the preliminary stages of an investigation into the disclosure of information pertaining to government programs to monitor telephone and Internet communications.
In terms of the US-Hong Kong Extradition Treaty, both Hong Kong and Beijing have the power to stymie Snowden’s extradition.
China for its part has no extradition treaty with the United States. In negotiating the treaty, Hong Kong was unbending on the inclusion of clauses providing for the denial of extradition to the US in specific circumstances, arguing that such provisions were necessary for obtaining approval from Beijing.
Article 3 of the treaty, for example, allows the Chinese government to refuse surrendering a person if it thought the surrender “relates to (its) defense, foreign affairs or essential public interest or policy.”
Hong Kong and Beijing are further granted the right to reject an extradition request deemed to be “politically motivated,” or criminal charges have already been initiated against the individual in question.
Even if Hong Kong gave the green light to Snowden’s extradition, Beijing maintains veto power, as the mainland remains in control of foreign relations and issues of national defense despite the city-state’s semi-autonomous status.
Snowden initially said his choice of Hong Kong was based on its “strong tradition of free speech.” However, he had no illusions about what fate might await him, saying all of his options “remain bad.”
“Yes, I could be rendered by the CIA. I could have people come after me. Or any of the third-party partners. They work closely with a number of other nations. Or they could pay off the Triads [Chinese organized crime]. Any of their agents or assets,” he told the Guardian.
“We have got a CIA station just up the road – the consulate here in Hong Kong – and I am sure they are going to be busy for the next week. And that is a concern I will live with for the rest of my life, however long that happens to be.”
As of Monday afternoon, it was no longer clear if Snowden was in fact still in Hong Kong. The Mira Hotel confirmed on Monday evening that Snowden had in fact stayed at the hotel but checked out at 12:30 p.m., the New York Times reports.
The hotel was unable to provide any further information, and the Hong Kong government was unable to comment on whether Snowden had left the territory, saying it did not comment on individual cases.
“All cases will be handled in accordance with the laws of Hong Kong,” the government said in a brief statement.
Icelandic asylum bid?
Regarding his hopes of asylum, Iceland, with its strong reputation as a bulwark of Internet freedom, remains his top choice. And in fact, prominent figures from the tiny Nordic nation have already issued a statement of support.
“Whereas IMMI [Icelandic Modern Media Initiative] is based in Iceland, and has worked on protections of privacy, furtherance of government transparency, and the protection of whistleblowers, we feel it is our duty to offer to assist and advise Mr. Snowden to the greatest of our ability,” Forbes cites a statement from Icelandic deputy Birgitta Jonsdottir and Smari McCarthy, executive director of the IMMI, as saying.
“We are already working on detailing the legal protocols required to apply for asylum, and will over the course of the week be seeking a meeting with the newly appointed interior minister of Iceland, Mrs. Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, to discuss whether an asylum request can be processed in a swift manner, should such an application be made.”
Jonsdottir and McCarthy, who helped publish the now infamous Wikileaks “Collateral Murder” video in 2010, already managed to pass a new source protection law in 2011 via their work at the IMMI.
But with April’s elections being won by the center-right Independence and Progressive Parties, Jonsdottir, as a member of the left-leaning Pirate Party, will inevitably have less political clout in the opposition.
Wikileaks for its part expressed reservations about the hopes the current political climate in Iceland would be conducive to Snowden’s asylum hopes.
“Snowden out of date on Iceland,” the group wrote via Twitter on Sunday. “New conservative government elected a month ago. Countries must step forward to offer Snowden asylum now.”
The Icelandic consulate in Hong Kong said it had “no comment” on the case, refusing to say whether Snowden had attempted to contact them.
‘Anywhere you can speak freely and live privately’
There are currently around 75 countries with no formal extradition treaty with the United States, although that in and of itself does not guarantee no extradition will take place. Many countries without a formal extradition treaty are more than willing to comply with an extradition request on a quid pro quo basis. In other cases, states may opt to lock up a suspect in a local prison while investigating the case against a suspect.
In fact, three states which actually have extradition treaties with the United States, Ecuador, Venezuela and Cuba, might be viable options for Snowden.
Ecuador, which in fact has relatively strong ties with the United States, granted political Asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in August 2012. Venezuela and Cuba, on the other hand are locked in deeply adversarial relationships with Washington and would potentially welcome Snowden with open arms.
Snowden for his part told the Washington Post he would “ask for asylum from any countries that believe in free speech and oppose the victimization of global privacy.”
‘They will kill you’
If Snowden does manage to evade the long-arm of the US law, he believes extrajudicial means remain a definite part of the equation when dealing with the United States’ vast intelligence apparatus.
“You can’t come forward against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk, because they’re such powerful adversaries, that no one can meaningfully oppose them. If they want to get you, they’ll get you in time,” he warned.
Barton Gellman of the Washington Post wrote on Sunday that in his earliest communications with the NSA contractor, there was an implicit understanding that Snowden would be “made to suffer” for his actions, “and that the return of this information to the public marks my end.”
Snowden went so far as to say that not only his life, but the lives of journalists investigating the story were as imperiled as long as the story had not yet gone public.
The US intelligence community “will most certainly kill you if they think you are the single point of failure that could stop this disclosure and make them the sole owner of this information,” Snowden wrote to Gellman.
Although Snowden could be accused of paranoia, Steve Steven Clemons, an American journalist and publisher of the political blog, The Washington Note, reportedly overheard security officials in Washington Dulles International Airport saying both Snowden and Glen Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who broke the NSA electronic surveillance story, should be “disappeared.”
“In Dulles UAL lounge listening to 4 US intel officials saying loudly leaker & reporter on #NSA stuff should be disappeared recorded a bit,” the Atlantic’s Clemons tweeted on Sunday.
Clemons, who says the men had just attended a conference hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, told the Huffington Post one of them was wearing “a white knit national counter-terrorism center shirt.”
In a Q&A with the Guardian, Snowden believed the veracity of Clemon’s claims despite voices to the contrary.
“Someone responding to the story said ‘real spies do not speak like that’. Well, I am a spy and that is how they talk. Whenever we had a debate in the office on how to handle crimes, they do not defend due process – they defend decisive action. They say it is better to kick someone out of a plane than let these people have a day in court. It is an authoritarian mindset in general.”
Glenmore Treaner-Harvey, Editor-in-Chief of the World Intelligence Review website, told RT the United States will use every power available to them, both legal and illegal, to get their hands on Snowden.
However, he believes at this point, Snowden “is too high-profile to be spirited away” in a rendition operation, perhaps forcing the United States to work through legal channels for the time being.
Snowden himself acknowledged this likelihood in coming forward, telling the Guardian the publicity the leaks have generated will make it “harder for them to get dirty.”
Facing prison, death and the potential of asylum that may offer him legal protections if not physical ones, Snowden remained stoical, saying “I am not afraid because this is the choice I’ve made.”
Whatever fate he meets in the end, Snowden finds hope in the belief that whatever awaits him, “the outcome will be positive for America.”
But with so many unknowns, on one point he has little doubt: “I do not expect to see home again, though that is what I want.”