What happens next with the man responsible for leaking a trove of National Security Agency documents to the Guardian rests in the hands of two countries who could do anything. They might send him back to the U.S. with express shipping, or decide to keep him as a global bargaining chip.
Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old American defense contractor, revealed himself as the man responsible for the Guardian's string of NSA leaks Sunday afternoon. Booz Allen confirmed he was an employee for the last three months. But, for now, he's in a hotel in Hong Kong ordering room service and covering up every time he logs onto his computer. Snowden said he chose Hong Kong, despite his ultimate goal of seeking asylum in Iceland, because "they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent."
And he will, almost assuredly, face criminal charges. Saturday night, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told NBC News' Andrea Mitchell the NSA requested a criminal investigation into who leaked the information. "For me, it is literally – not figuratively – literally gut-wrenching to see this happen because of the huge, grave damage it does to our intelligence capabilities," Clapper said. This is the latest statement from the Shawn Turner, the NSA's Director of Public Affairs, per the Huffington Post's Sam Stein (emphasis ours):
We have seen the latest report from The Guardian that identifies an individual claiming to have disclosed information about highly classified intelligence programs in recent days. Because the matter has been referred to the Department of Justice, we refer you to the Department of Justice for comment on any further specifics of the unauthorized disclosure of classified information be a person with authorized access. The Intelligence Community is currently reviewing the damage that has been done by these recent disclosures.
The White House isn't commenting on Snowden as of Sunday evening. So the Justice Department is investigating and Snowden is holed up in Hong Kong, for now. If they do file criminal charges, Snowden's future and the chances he remains in Hong Kong are confusing, at best.
Hong Kong and the U.S. have a bilateral extradition agreement. But it's slightly more complicated than that. Snowden's decision to go to Hong Kong raises some very big questions. It could be a brilliant move or, frankly, a supremely dumb one. The Iceland asylum dream is basically dead in the water already. "A small country that wants to be close friends of the United States is not going to do that," writes Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall. "But of all the places where you might have a shot at not getting extradited, China’s not a bad choice."
The extradition treaty between Hong Kong and the U.S. has to be approved by China and Hong Kong if the U.S. decides to request he be extradited. China has sovereignty over Hong Kong, but Hong Kong was granted a massive amount of autonomy when it was relinquished from British rule. The tiny country has a strong history of press freedom and political tolerance, as outlined by the Guardian's Julian Borger:
The freedom of the Hong Kong press, meanwhile, is being continually put to the test. When the government attempted in 2003 to impose restrictions on the grounds of sedition and national security, half a million people came out to demonstrate and the bill was withdrawn.
The tradition of commemorating the 1989 killing of Tiananmen Square demonstrators – banned in the rest of China – is vigorously upheld in Hong Kong. Attendance at a memorial ceremony in the territory's Victoria Park last week was estimated at between 54,000 and 150,000, despite torrential rain.
But, ultimately, it will likely come down to how China wants this to play out. They are perhaps the only superpower who can stand up to the U.S. on political matters. And, luckily for Snowden, President Obama and President Xi Jinping didn't see eye-to-eye on cyber security issues during their summit this weekend. Snowden's little performance probably played a big part of it. Marshall thinks there's two ways China could go. One works in Snowden's favor, while the other does not:
Call me naive but I think this is going to come down to how Beijing wants to play this. If they don’t want a fight over this, Snowden’s toast. If they like the optics of it, I don’t think it matters what that extradition treaty says. China’s a big enough player and the US has enough other fish to fry with the Chinese, that the US is not going to put the bilateral relationship on the line over this guy. And the Chinese might relish granting asylum to an American running from the claws of US ‘state repression’.
For now we must wait for the Justice Department to press criminal charges against Snowden and for an extradition request to happen. Snowden could possibly leave Hong Kong for another country, one that doesn't have an extradition treaty with the U.S., before the authorities find him. Or he could continue staying in his hotel room at the Mandarin Oriental, with the U.S. embassy just down the street, eating room service until his fate is ultimately sealed.