Extradition: How will the US get Edward Snowden out of Hong Kong?

NSA leaker Edward Snowden is being charged under the US Espionage Act for revealing top secret surveillance programs. The US wants to extradite him from Hong Kong, but that could mean a long and complicated legal process.

Kin Cheung/AP
The front cover of a local magazine shows Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping U.S. surveillance programs, in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was silent Saturday on whether the former National Security Agency contractor should be extradited to the United States now that he has been charged with espionage, but some legislators said the decision should be up to the Chinese government.

The United States Government has charged Edward Snowden under the US Espionage Act for leaking details about top secret National Security Agency surveillance programs.

Now comes the hard part: Getting Mr. Snowden out of Hong Kong, where he’s believed to be hiding out, and into the US court system before he can find refuge in a country willing to provide him with asylum.

Snowden faces three felonies, according to a one-page criminal complaint unsealed Friday in federal court in Alexandria, Va.

He is 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.

But since he was last seen staying in a luxury hotel in Hong Kong – where he fully admitted revealing NSA secrets in a videotaped interview with the British Guardian newspaper – Snowden’s whereabouts have been unknown, although there’s no indication that he’s left Hong Kong.

According to various reports, supporters – including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange – have been trying to make arrangements for Snowden to find legal refuge in Iceland.

It’s also being widely reported that extraditing Snowden from Hong Kong could involve a long and complicated legal process, even though the US has an extradition treaty with Hong Kong.

The US and Hong Kong have had an extradition treaty since 1998, a year after Hong Kong was transferred from British to Chinese rule, the Guardian notes. While espionage and theft of state secrets are not cited specifically in the treaty, equivalent charges could be pressed against Snowden under Hong Kong's official secrets ordinance, legal experts told the newspaper.

Snowden could contest extradition on grounds of political persecution. In general, the extradition agreement between the US and Hong Kong excepts political offenses from the obligation to turn over a person, the Associated Press reports.

On Saturday, Hong Kong legislators said the Chinese government should make the final decision on whether Snowden should be extradited to the United States, according to the AP. But it’s unclear whether Beijing would intervene under its “one-country, two-systems” policy with Hong Kong.

The recent experience of US Army Pfc. Bradley Manning – now in the midst of a court-martial for the largest leak of classified documents in US history – may color at least the public perception of Snowden’s case (and therefore the way authorities in China and any potential asylum-granting countries react). Critics say Pfc. Manning was held in solitary confinement and mistreated for months.

Meanwhile, the extent of Snowden’s whistle-blowing and related issues continues to complicate the story involving the 29 year-old civilian contractor and what had been a powerful nation’s most secret programs involving international surveillance of telephone and Internet activities officials say were potentially connected to terrorist activity.

New revelations this week, first reported in the New York Times and the Washington Post, indicate more inclusion of information on US citizens in NSA surveillance activity.

In USA Today interviews, three former senior NSA employees corroborated Snowden’s charges against the agency.

“For years, the three whistle-blowers [Thomas Drake, William Binney and J. Kirk Wiebe] had told anyone who would listen that the NSA collects huge swaths of communications data from US citizens,” USA Today reported. “They had spent decades in the top ranks of the agency, designing and managing the very data-collection systems they say have been turned against Americans.”

“When they became convinced that fundamental constitutional rights were being violated, they complained first to their superiors, then to federal investigators, congressional oversight committees and, finally, to the news media…. Today, they feel vindicated.”

On Friday, the Guardian reported what it claims are new revelations about government spying based on documents provided by Snowden.

“Britain's spy agency GCHQ has secretly gained access to the network of cables which carry the world's phone calls and Internet traffic and has started to process vast streams of sensitive personal information which it is sharing with its American partner, the National Security Agency,” the Guardian reported. “GCHQ and the NSA are consequently able to access and process vast quantities of communications between entirely innocent people, as well as targeted suspects.”

GCHQ refused comment, but the NSA quickly rebutted the latest revelation.

"Any allegation that NSA relies on its foreign partners to circumvent US law is absolutely false,” NSA spokeswoman Judith Emmel said in a statement. “NSA does not ask its foreign partners to undertake any intelligence activity that the US government would be legally prohibited from undertaking itself.”

Caught between the competing political interests of national security and privacy protection, President Obama on Friday held his first meeting with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), a little-known office that has been largely inactive since it was formed in 2004 at the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission.

Following the meeting, PCLOB chairman David ­Medine (confirmed to the post just last month) said the board would be reviewing those portions of the Patriot Act that apply to the recently-revealed NSA programs.

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