We still don't know for sure what transpired behind the scenes this weekend that allowed Edward Snowden to escape Hong Kong, but piecing together the conflicting accounts today suggests the holed-up situation became an international headache nobody wanted to deal with, followed by a daring — if still mystifying — exodus..
The official claim from Hong Kong is that the American request to have Snowden arrested was incomplete and not thus not fully legal. Hong Kong officials also claimed that they did not receive notification from the United States that Snowden's passport had been revoked and therefore had no right to stop the NSA leaker when he boarded a plane for Moscow (or wherever he is). The White House disputed that claim on Monday, saying they were never informed of any problems with the request, and that even though the passport wasn't revoked until Saturday, HK officials were fully aware of the situation.
Why Snowden decided to leave when he did is another matter, and it may have swung on a pair of shadowy "intermediaries," serving as go-betweens for him and Hong Kong government. One is a lawyer named Albert Ho who was advising Snowden in Hong Kong and asking questions on his behalf.
According to Ho, he met with Snowden and other lawyers over a pizza dinner last week (after everyone put their cellphones in the fridge to avoid snooping) to discuss the fugitive's options. He suggested to Snowden that even if he were to fight extradition from Hong Kong, he would likely be placed under arrest while the proceedings played out. During that time — which could take months or even years — Snowden could have been held without bail and denied access to a computer, a situation he found unacceptable.
"He didn’t go out, he spent all his time inside a tiny space, but he said it was O.K. because he had his computer,” Mr. Ho said. “If you were to deprive him of his computer, that would be totally intolerable.”
So after learning that, Snowden asked Ho to reached out to the Hong Kong government to see if they would either; a) release him on bail while he fought extradition, or b) let him leave the country altogether. Ho, who is also a long-time legislator in Hong Kong, took Snowden's questions to government officials.
After he did so, however, Ho says that another, still unknown intermediary reached out to Snowden and told him that he should leave the city soon... and he would not be stopped at the airport if he did so. Ho believes that second middleman was actually working for Beijing and that Hong Kong's only role was to stay out of the way of his departure. Another source told the Times that Hong Kong simply went around Ho, because they didn't trust him and didn't want any government officials talking directly with Snowden. (Ho is a long-time critic of Beijing and has called for Hong Kong's full independence.) Another lawmaker, Charles Mok, says the U.S. arrest request was held up Hong Kong's Chief Executive, possibly at Beijing's request. While China has officially stayed out of it, both men may be trying to cast suspicion on Bejing and make Hong Kong look guiltless.
Either way, that encouragement to leave, plus the news on Friday that he had been formally indicted back in the United States, prompted Snowden to get out of town.
Whether or not it was Beijing or Hong Kong that showed Snowden the exit doesn't really matter since it seems neither government was interested in the potential difficulties that came with letting him stay. For both nations, a protracted legal fight would strain relations with the United States and with each other. And Snowden himself recognized the difficult of trying to navigate three different legal systems (the U.S., China, and Hong Kong) while likely being in jail the whole time.
A continuous debate over what Hong Kong's "one nation, two systems" agreement with China actually means is not a fight either side was willing to have right now. (Hong Kong was also concerned that the U.S. generous no visa rule of their citizen would be in jeopardy, seriously hampering business relationships and tourism for both sides.) The short-term annoyance of being scolded by the U.S. over his escape, would have been nothing compared to years-long international incident. Snowden is Moscow's problem now.
Plus, whatever upside could be gleaned from having Snowden as a guest was already accomplished and used up. By announcing that U.S. spies routinely hacked into Chinese servers, Snowden gave Beijing a huge propaganda win, both at home and abroad, as it makes the Americans look like the abusive agressor in the cyberwars, and makes Chinese censors look like patriotic heroes for locking down their domestic internet. There is also unconfirmed speculation that if the Chinese wanted more secrets from Snowden computer files, they already took them.
It soon became obvious that the best solution for everyone was to find Snowden a place to fight his battle. All they had to do was look away long enough for him to get on a plane.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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