NSA Leaker Vows to Fight Extradition From Hong Kong

Edward Snowden
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Edward Snowden

Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency computer technician who has acknowledged leaking highly classified documents about the United States government's monitoring of Internet and telephone communications, told a Hong Kong newspaper on Wednesday that he plans to stay in the city and fight extradition.

"People who think I made a mistake in picking Hong Kong as a location misunderstand my intentions," he told the newspaper, The South China Morning Post. "I am not here to hide from justice; I am here to reveal criminality."

He also said that the United States' surveillance program had gained access to hundreds of computers in Hong Kong and China since 2009. "We hack network backbones — like huge Internet routers, basically — that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one," the newspaper quoted him as saying.

The newspaper did not say where in Hong Kong Mr. Snowden has been hiding since he checked out of a hotel early Monday afternoon. The Guardian newspaper of Britain, with which Mr. Snowden has shared a series of documents, reported Wednesday morning that he had moved to a safe house, but did not provide details.

Mr. Snowden's decision to stay in Hong Kong came as a person with knowledge of the Hong Kong government's work on the case said local government lawyers, working with United States government lawyers, had identified 36 offenses with which Mr. Snowden could be charged under both Hong Kong and American laws.

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The United States and Hong Kong operate under a 1996 bilateral extradition agreement, and any attempt by the United States to extradite Mr. Snowden would have to cite offenses that violate the laws in both countries, are punishable by jail terms of a year or more and meet the terms of that agreement. One of the 36 offenses involves the release of official secrets, which is illegal in Hong Kong and the United States, said the person familiar with Hong Kong government efforts, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate legal and diplomatic aspects of the case.

Mr. Snowden could delay extradition proceedings by requesting political asylum in Hong Kong. But he will almost certainly be taken into custody and jailed as soon as he files for asylum, because he would no longer qualify as a visitor to Hong Kong, the person said.

Leung Chun-ying, the chief executive of Hong Kong, said on an official visit to New York on Tuesday that his government would not discuss Mr. Snowden's case. "We have existing laws and policies; otherwise we can't comment on individual cases," he said, according to an official transcript released here.

An ideological divide has opened in Hong Kong's legal profession over how long Mr. Snowden can manage to avoid extradition to the United States. Some human rights lawyers say he could resist for years, partly by filing for asylum, although they predict that he would eventually lose his case and be sent back.

Human rights lawyers and advocates have long criticized Hong Kong for not adopting the 1951 Refugee Convention. As a result, people seeking asylum have fewer rights here than in most jurisdictions around the world, and it is hard to obtain asylum.

Hong Kong laws do allow for asylum for someone who fears torture, or is being prosecuted overseas mainly for political as opposed to criminal reasons. The United States military's treatment of Pfc. Bradley Manning, accused of responsibility for the WikiLeaks release of classified documents, has been compared to torture by activists and legal scholars here.

But Private Manning has been held in military prisons and tried under the military code; Mr. Snowden, as a civilian, is subject to the civilian criminal system in the United States, which has not received similar criticism.

"He doesn't stand a good chance of avoiding extradition," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Human Rights Watch researcher here. "When all is said and done, the Hong Kong government does cooperate with the United States on these cases. The only thing that could stop it is for China to step in." Legal and diplomatic experts said it was highly unlikely that China, which has no formal extradition apparatus with the United States, would intervene.

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Former judges and prosecutors tend to agree that the court system here has almost always granted extradition requests from the United States.

These litigators note that extradition cases are heard in Hong Kong by judges, not juries, whose members might be more easily swayed by Mr. Snowden's appeals to public opinion.

"If Uncle Sam wants you, Uncle Sam will get you," said Kevin Egan, a former prosecutor who has since worked as a defense lawyer on extradition cases.

While Mr. Snowden could say that he was the subject of political persecution in the United States, "the judiciary here is notoriously unsympathetic" to such claims, Mr. Egan added.

Mr. Snowden is almost certainly under surveillance by the Hong Kong authorities, said Steve Vickers, who oversaw police criminal intelligence here before Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997. He now runs his own risk consulting firm.

The police had sufficient time to figure out where Mr. Snowden was after he revealed his role in the leaks late on Sunday and before he left his hotel on Monday, Mr. Vickers said. He arrived in Hong Kong from Hawaii, where he had been working at an N.S.A. facility.

A big question is what will become of the intelligence files Mr. Snowden brought here, and whether China's intelligence agencies would benefit if they got a chance to copy the data.

The Guardian has already said that while in Hong Kong, Mr. Snowden transferred hundreds of files to its reporters that will be the basis for further articles. Less clear is whether Mr. Snowden copied any other files before leaving Hawaii, and whether any of them have the potential to compromise American security interests.

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Lawyers for people charged in other intelligence-related cases in the United States have sometimes threatened to divulge further information in court as a way to seek a dismissal or a reduction of charges by the government. But Mr. Snowden has insisted that he was judicious in choosing which documents to leak, selecting those that illustrate his concerns about invasions of privacy in the United States.

Mr. Snowden has told The Guardian that he had electronic access to American intelligence operations all over the world. Some American officials have questioned how that would be possible for someone based in an N.S.A. office in Hawaii.

A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong police said arrests of people wanted by overseas jurisdictions could be conducted only by local police forces. But she declined to comment on whether foreign law enforcement personnel would be allowed to accompany local officers as observers during an arrest. The spokeswoman, who by local practice is not identified by name, said decisions on whether to hand over any computer memory devices found on a suspect were made on a case-by-case basis.

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While Hong Kong retains a high degree of autonomy under Chinese rule, its police officers now have a legal obligation to consider China's national security interests.

David Zweig, a China expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said Beijing was probably reluctant to play a visible role in Hong Kong regarding Mr. Snowden. Whatever intelligence he may have is unlikely to be valuable enough to justify jeopardizing any good will created during President Obama's meeting last week with President Xi Jingping, Mr. Zweig said.

Yet, the Chinese security apparatus may benefit from Mr. Snowden even without obtaining any intelligence from him. Li Siling, a social media expert at the China Executive Leadership Academy, which trains elite Communist Party cadres, said that while Mr. Snowden's disclosures about American monitoring of the Internet and phone conversations had not yet received wide attention in China, they were likely to play into the hands of those in Beijing who favor a strong security apparatus.

"I think the government will use it as an excuse," he said. "They will say the U.S. is supposed to be the most free country in the world, but they still monitor the Internet and tap every phone."