Edward Snowden heads for asylum: Does the US have any options?

Faced with espionage charges, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden left Hong Kong Sunday for asylum, reportedly in South America. This could leave the US with few options as it tries to prosecute the man who leaked details about top secret surveillance programs.

Kin Cheung/AP
A banner supporting Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping U.S. surveillance programs, is displayed in Hong Kong's business district. Snowden has left Hong Kong seeking asylum in another country.

UPDATE 1:30 PM Reuters reports: "Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said on Sunday that former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden had asked Ecuador for asylum."

National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, aided by the WikiLeaks whistleblower organization, has left his hideout in Hong Kong and is hop-scotching his way to South America – all of which has left US officials scrambling for recourse following their failure so far to bring Mr. Snowden back to the US for prosecution on charges of espionage.

"We will continue to discuss this matter with Hong Kong and pursue relevant law enforcement cooperation with other countries where Mr. Snowden may be attempting to travel," Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre said in a statement Sunday. Neither the White House nor Secretary of State John Kerry had any more to say on the subject by midday.

According to reports by Chinese and Russian news agencies, Mr. Snowden is traveling by commercial air – first to Moscow, then to Havana, and finally to Caracas, Venezuela, where he is expected to be granted asylum.

“Mr. Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower who exposed evidence of a global surveillance regime conducted by US and UK intelligence agencies, has left Hong Kong legally,” WikiLeaks said in a statement Sunday. “He is bound for a democratic nation via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from WikiLeaks.”

Meanwhile, as he was beginning the latest leg on his journey from relative obscurity to worldwide notoriety, the former NSA contractor was revealing more of what he says is a vast network of US surveillance of telephone and Internet information around the world.

In an interview piece published Sunday, the South China Morning Post quoted Snowden as saying the US government is hacking Chinese mobile phone companies to steal millions of text messages.

“There’s far more than this,” Snowden said, referring to his earlier claims that the US had targeted Hong Kong and mainland China. “The NSA does all kinds of things like hack Chinese cell phone companies to steal all of your SMS data.”

It’s just the latest twist in a saga that began earlier this month when Snowden revealed himself as the former NSA analyst who’d exposed top secret US surveillance programs – first to the Washington Post and the British newspaper the Guardian, then via a 12-minute video in which he declared, “I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things.”

Since then, he’s been praised as a heroic whistleblower by supporters and reviled as a traitor by critics and many US lawmakers eager to see him returned to this country for prosecution.

The situation had left President Obama in the tricky position of balancing national security in a post-9/11 world with the rights of privacy cherished by most Americans as well as Obama’s own calls for openness in government.

As Snowden sat in Hong Kong – first in a luxury hotel and then in an undisclosed hideout (perhaps protected by local police) – the US inevitably pursued him through diplomatic and legal channels.

In a criminal complaint unsealed Friday in federal court in Alexandria, Va., Snowden was charged with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person. The latter two offenses fall under the US Espionage Act and can bring up to 10 years in prison.

Then on Saturday, White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon announced that the US had formally asked Hong Kong authorities to extradite Snowden under a 1998 US-Hong Kong treaty.

"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 News. "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."

Instead, officials in Hong Kong seemed eager to have done with the 30 year-old Snowden.

In a statement Sunday, the Hong Kong government said Snowden left "on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel."

It acknowledged the US extradition request, but said US documentation did not "fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law," the Associated Press reported. It said additional information was requested from Washington, but since the Hong Kong government "has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr. Snowden from leaving Hong Kong."

Even if Snowden had remained in Hong Kong, there was no guarantee that the US would have been allowed access to him any time soon. The extradition treaty makes exceptions for charges deemed “political,” and the extradition process in Hong Kong has been known to go on for years.

While the White House so far has remained silent on the latest episode in the Snowden affair, others have not.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York took particular aim at Russia and President Vladimir Putin on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday.
“The bottom line is very simple: allies are supposed to treat each other in decent ways and Putin always seems almost eager to put a finger in the eye of the United States, whether it is Syria, Iran and now of course with Snowden,” Sen. Schumer said. “That’s not how allies should treat each other and I think it will have serious consequences for the United States-Russia relationship.”
It’s unlikely that Snowden’s relocation to asylum in South America – if, indeed, that’s where he’s headed – will put an end to his revelations about US spying.

The New York Times notes that Snowden left Hong Kong “reportedly carrying four laptop computers with a cornucopia of American intelligence documents that he downloaded to a thumb drive this spring while working in Hawaii for the National Security Agency as an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton.”

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