The Debate

Ex-CIA Whistleblower Edward Snowden’s Fate in China’s Hands

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The Debate

Ex-CIA Whistleblower Edward Snowden’s Fate in China’s Hands

The whistleblower behind the NSA leaks has come forward. Will Beijing decide his fate?

The Guardian has had a big week, with some fairly stunning revelations regarding the extent to which the U.S. government is essentially spying on its own citizens. Yesterday both the name of the whistleblower and his whereabouts came to light.

It has been revealed that Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old ex-CIA technical assistant and employee of National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Booz Allen Hamilton (where he worked for less than three months), chose to leak a number of highly classified documents from a hotel room in Hong Kong, pitting himself directly against the world’s largest intelligence agency.

In Hong Kong, Snowden stuffed pillows against the doors of his room and donned a large red hood when entering passwords, suggesting he was fully aware of the consequences. Yet he remains convinced that he did the right thing.

“I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things,” he told The Guardian. “I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.”

When revealing the jaw dropping information to The Washington Post and The Guardian, Snowden – who claims he was always intent on outing himself – used the pseudonym “Verax” (“truth teller” in Latin). It’s a moniker with quite a history. Predecessors who went by “Verax” included Clement Walker, a 17th critic of British parliament who met his end in the Tower of London, and Henry Dunckley, a 19th-century social critic who used the name in writing for The Manchester Examiner.

According to the leaked information, the NSA is gathering information on U.S. citizens through multiple avenues, from collecting millions of Verizon phone records on an “ongoing, daily basis” and accessing the servers of Google, Apple and Facebook, to developing a highly sophisticated datamining tool called Boundless Informant that catalogs the myriad data collected.

Snowden’s choice to launch his truth offensive from Hong Kong has many speculating at what happens next. Some have wondered whether his decision represented an implicit endorsement of China’s human rights record, but this does not seem to be the case.

“I think it is really tragic that an American has to move to a place that has a reputation for less freedom,” he told The Guardian. “Hong Kong has a reputation for freedom in spite of the People’s Republic of China. It has a strong tradition of free speech.”

What may be more important than this tradition, which persists under Beijing’s sovereignty, is the extradition treaty signed by the U.S. and Hong Kong in 1997 just before mainland rule recommenced.

Under the treaty, both countries have the right to refuse to hand over fugitives. Complicating matters, Beijing retains the right to veto Hong Kong’s decision to return a criminal if the Chinese government deems the surrender of a particular criminal as being harmful to China in any way. In other words, the decision as to whether to return Snowden to the U.S. depends on America’s foremost Pacific rival, China.

Of Snowden’s real motives for choosing Hong Kong, Josh Marshall argued on his Talking Points Memo blog that even if Snowden leaked the documents because he thought it was the right thing to do, “he still seems to be hoping to evade the criminal consequences by defecting to China, a key US rival and one that comes up rather short of being the kind of libertarian and transparent society Snowden apparently believes in.”

Marshall continued, “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.”