Espionage: The fight over Edward Snowden’s future intensifies

The US government has formally asked Hong Kong authorities to extradite NSA leaker Edward Snowden to the US for prosecution of espionage charges. But appeals of extradition requests can last years.

Kin Cheung/AP
A TV screen shows the news of Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping US surveillance programs, at a shopping mall in Hong Kong.

The world knows that NSA leaker Edward Snowden is somewhere in Hong Kong – not in the luxury hotel where he was videotaped talking about his bombshell revelations regarding top secret National Security Agency surveillance programs gathering telephone and Internet metadata from millions of individuals, but “in a safe place,” the South China Morning Post reported Saturday.

Earlier reports had put Mr. Snowden in a safe house under police protection.

But wherever he is for the moment, “experts say time is running out for Snowden if he intends to leave Hong Kong and seek asylum elsewhere,” the English-language newspaper reported. “His fate may depend on when the Hong Kong police seek a provisional warrant for his arrest from a local court in light of charges in the United States, a legal procedure the Post understands was still being worked Saturday night.”

Meanwhile, White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon told CBS News Saturday that the US has formally asked Hong Kong authorities to extradite Snowden.

"We believe that the charges presented, present a good case for extradition under the treaty, the extradition treaty between the United States and Hong Kong," Mr. Donilon told CBS Radio News White House correspondent Mark Knoller. "Hong Kong has been a historically good partner of the United States in law enforcement matters, and we expect them to comply with the treaty in this case."

Michael di Pretoro, a retired 30-year veteran with the FBI who served from 1990 to 1994 as the legal liaison officer at the American consulate in Hong Kong, said "relations between US and Hong Kong law enforcement personnel are historically quite good."

"In my time, I felt the degree of cooperation was outstanding to the extent that I almost felt I was in an FBI field office," Mr. di Pretoro told the Associated Press.

The United States and Hong Kong have a standing agreement on the surrender of fugitives. However, Snowden's appeal rights could drag out any extradition proceeding.

For one thing, some of the three felony charges Snowden now faces, according to a criminal complaint unsealed Friday in federal court in Alexandria, Va. – theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person – could be considered “political” under the US-Hong Kong extradition treaty.

Snowden could contest extradition on grounds of political persecution, according to wire service reports cited by the South China Morning Post. Under article six of the treaty, extradition should be refused for “an offence of a political character.”

Also complicating Snowden’s situation are his allegations that the US hacked computer systems in Hong Kong and mainland China.

In what it called an “exclusive” report, the South China Morning Post reports in its Sunday edition that the NSA hacked computers at the Hong Kong headquarters of Pacnet, described as “owner of one of the biggest fibre-optic networks in the region.”

The essence of Snowden’s reluctance to return to the US is his belief that he would never get a fair trial.

The US government "predictably destroyed any possibility of a fair trial at home" by "openly declaring me guilty of treason," Snowden said in an online chat this week hosted by the Guardian newspaper.

There’s increasing urgency about the legal and political fight over Snowden’s future.

"If Hong Kong doesn't act soon, it will complicate our bilateral relations and raise questions about Hong Kong's commitment to the rule of law,” a senior Obama administration official told the BBC on Saturday. Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of China which signed an extradition treaty with the US in 1998.

As the US government increases its effort to have Snowden returned from Hong Kong to the US for prosecution, supporters of the former NSA contractor have stepped up their lobbying to have a third country provide him permanent asylum

“Charging Snowden with espionage is yet another effort to retaliate against those who criticize the overreach of US intelligence agencies under this administration,” the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower support group, said in a statement Saturday. “The charges send a clear message to potential whistleblowers: this is the treatment they can expect should they speak out about constitutional violations.”

And in another statement Saturday, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said: “The effort to find asylum for Edward Snowden must be intensified. What brave country will stand up for him, and recognize his service to humanity? Tell your governments to step forward. Step forward and stand with Snowden.”

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