Hong Kong a safe hideaway for Snowden — for now
HONG KONG - Wherever Edward Snowden is hiding in Hong Kong, experts agree that the man claiming responsibility for a series of sensational leaks about U.S. spying programs is probably safely beyond the grasp of angry U.S. officials.
A media manhunt took place Monday in Hong Kong as Edward Snowden was revealed to have been holed up in a luxury hotel. The Mira confirmed that Snowden had been staying at the hotel but had checked out.
Snowden told The Guardian why he chose to flee to Hong Kong: "Hong Kong has a reputation for freedom in spite of the People's Republic of China. It has a strong tradition of free speech."
In the U.S., the Office of the Director of National Intellligence has referred Snowden's case to the Justice Department, noting that "any person who has a security clearance knows that he or she has an obligation to protect classified information and abide by the law."
Snowden said he hoped to seek asylum in Iceland. That nation's honorary consul in Hong Kong, Hulda Thorey Gardarsdottir, said any application for asylum would have to be handled by Iceland's Ministry of the Interior.
But while he's in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong government is unlikely to take action against Snowden, at least for now, experts said.
"I think they won't do anything ... if he's here legally and lawfully," said Steve Vickers, a former head of criminal intelligence for the Hong Kong police.
Vickers said Hong Kong would be inclined to act if an arrest warrant is issued for a charge that is also a crime in Hong Kong or if the U.S. makes a request through Interpol, the global organization for law enforcement cooperation. He said he did not expect Washington to pursue either option, adding that Interpol itself explicitly stays away from political and military cases.
The extradition treaty between the U.S. and Hong Kong specifically excludes fugitives "if the offense of which that person is accused or was convicted is an offense of a political character."
Barry Sautman, who lectures on U.S.-China relations as an associate professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said, "I have no doubt that a (Hong Kong) court would construe what Snowden did as political."
Tom Fuentes, a former FBI assistant director who once headed the bureau's international division, said that authorities essentially have two options in seeking Snowden's arrest and return to the United States: a revocation of his U.S. passport or extradition.
Both options, Fuentes said, would require U.S. authorities to first file criminal charges against the leak suspect and secure the cooperation of Hong Kong officials.
To revoke Snowden's passport, Fuentes said the Justice Department would have to issue a criminal complaint and present it to the State Department for purposes of voiding the suspect's passport. Notice of the revocation, meaning that the suspect would then be illegally in the country, would be sent to Hong Kong authorities who could then deport him back to the U.S.
Formal extradition, although not common, is not unprecedented, Fuentes said.
Fuentes said the FBI has an extensive relationship with Hong Kong police, dating to 1966 when the bureau established a presence there. While under British control, the law enforcement relationship with the U.S., was "one of the strongest in the world,'' Fuentes said.
U.S. citizens coming as tourists can enter Hong Kong without a visa and stay up to 90 days.
While formally a part of China since the end of British colonial rule in 1997, Hong Kong remains separate in many respects, with unfettered access to the Internet, critical media and independent courts.
Activists who would be subject to arrest or detention on the Chinese mainland openly campaign for their causes and many joined last week in an annual memorial for those who died in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Agencies of the national government do not operate openly in the city except for representatives of what is called a "liaison office" and the foreign ministry.
The local government, however, is ultimately appointed by Beijing and is ever more wary of taking decisions that might annoy the country's leaders.
While the Chinese government itself would have an interest in talking to Snowden, Vickers said the matter was now too high profile for Beijing to reach out to him.
The timing of Snowden's leaks amid a summit of President Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, that was in part focused on issues of cybersecurity, makes it particularly unlikely Beijing will help provide sanctuary, say scholars of U.S.-China relations.
"They (Beijing) would want him to leave," said Sautman. "They don't want this kind of irritant to exist. They have enough of a problem with the U.S. right now about issues of cybersecurity."
David Zweig, director of the Center on China's Transnational Relations at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said Snowden probably need not be in any hurry. The situation would be different if political tensions were higher, he said, but for now "I don't think China is going to get involved in this."