Confessed NSA Leaker Holed Up In Hong Kong Hotel

The Guardian has identified its source for a series of reports it published in recent days on secret U.S. surveillance activity. The paper says the source is Edward Snowden, a former technical assistant for the CIA who now works for a private-sector defense and technology consulting firm.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

For several days last week, we heard a series of dramatic revelations about the amount of data being collected on Americans by America's most secret intelligence agency. The National Security Agency has tracked millions of telephone calls and collected emails, photos and other Web data.

Over the weekend, a surprising turn: The man behind the leaks came forward. His name: Edward Snowden, and now he's holed up in a hotel room in Hong Kong. In a video interview with The Guardian newspaper, Snowden explained why he chose Hong Kong as a refuge, but that choice raises both legal and political questions for the world's two most powerful countries.

As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Shanghai, some analysts think it's a decision Snowden may come to regret.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Sitting in a hotel room with the curtains drawn, just down the road from the American consulate, Snowden explained on video why the Chinese territory of Hong Kong was an appealing place to hide out.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

EDWARD SNOWDEN: Hong Kong has a strong tradition of free speech. People think, oh, China, Great Firewall. Mainland China does have significant restrictions on free speech, but the people of Hong Kong have a long tradition of protesting in the streets, of making their views known. The Internet is not filtered here.

LANGFITT: And Snowden seemed to be placing his hopes on the political leaders and courts of the former British colony on the South China Sea.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

SNOWDEN: I believe that the Hong Kong government is actually independent in relation to a lot of other leading Western governments.

DOUGLAS MCNABB: Well, I'm surprised that Mr. Snowden picked Hong Kong. Why would he select a country with which the U.S. has an extradition treaty?

SNOWDEN: Douglas McNabb is an international criminal defense lawyer based in Washington, D.C., who's frequently dealt with extradition cases. China and dozens of other countries - including Bermuda - do not have an extradition treaty with the U.S., but Hong Kong does.

LANGFITT: McNabb says if Snowden is eventually indicted in the U.S. for leaking secrets, the American government can ask Interpol to issue a red notice for his detention.

MCNABB: China is aware that there is red notice, and they know where he is, they have the right to go out and to arrest him.

LANGFITT: One Hong Kong-based attorney, who used to work as a U.S. federal prosecutor, said extraditing people from Hong Kong to the U.S. is usually quite easy. She called Hong Kong a bizarre choice, and described Snowden as naive.

Hong Kong has some autonomy, but it's not democratic, and is ultimately controlled by China. The attorney said the extradition treaty does have two interesting exceptions. Hong Kong can refuse to extradite people who are being prosecuted for their political views. Based on his video, Snowden might try to paint himself as such a victim.

MCNABB: 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.

LANGFITT: Ultimately, though, the Hong Kong-based attorney said Beijing has de facto veto power over whether someone is extradited.

Shen Dingli - a foreign policy analyst at Fudan University in Shanghai - thinks Snowden's fate lies with China's Communist Party leaders.

SHEN DINGLI: Hong Kong, they should not make the decision. They have to listen to Beijing.

LANGFITT: Shen doubted China would keep Snowden. President Xi Jinping wrapped up a summit with President Obama over the weekend, in which China pushed for a new, more cooperative and respectful relationship with the U.S. Shen says holding onto Snowden would just embarrass Washington and undermine efforts at better relations.

DINGLI: China will not take him. We don't want to be implicated in such a case, which will not good for building a new type of great power relationship.

LANGFITT: Shen said China might be best off just letting Snowden go somewhere else.

DINGLI: Like Venezuela, Sudan, Cuba, North Korea. Anyone who would like to take him, we let him go. Don't stay.

LANGFITT: So far, China's government hasn't commented on Snowden's visit to Hong Kong, nor has it said anything about the NSA surveillance leaks, which followed Washington's own heavy criticisms of Chinese cyber-spying. China's on a three-day holiday, celebrating the annual Dragon Boat Festival, which may provide leaders here time to ponder a solution.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.

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