Whistleblower Snowden waits to see if US can reach him in Hong Kong
Former CIA employee identifies himself as person who leaked details of US government secret surveillance programmes
Handout image of Edward Snowden provided by the Guardian via Getty Images
Edward Snowden’s decision to flee to Hong Kong as he prepared to expose the US government’s secret surveillance programs may not save him from prosecution due to an extradition treaty in force since 1998.
A 29-year-old former CIA employee, Mr Snowden has identified himself as the person who gave the Guardian and the Washington Post classified documents about how the US National Security Agency (NSA) obtained data from US telecom and Internet companies.
While preparing his leaks, Mr Snowden left Hawaii for Hong Kong on May 20th so he would be in a place that might be able to resist US prosecution attempts, he told the Guardian.
“Mainland China does have significant restrictions on free speech but the people of Hong Kong have a long tradition of protesting in the streets, making their views known,” Mr Snowden, a US citizen, said in a video interview posted on the Guardian’s website.
The NSA has requested a criminal inquiry into the leaks and yesterday the US Justice Department said it was in the initial stages of a criminal investigation.
His whereabouts were not immediately known today, but staff at a luxury hotel in Hong Kong said he had checked out at noon.
It was not clear whether Mr Snowden remained in Hong Kong or left the territory, which is part of China but has a high degree of autonomy. The hotel gave no further information, and the Hong Kong government declined to discuss Mr Snowden’s whereabouts, citing a policy of not commenting on individual cases. “All cases will be handled in accordance with the laws of Hong Kong,” the government said in a brief statement.
The White House will not discuss the investigation into leaks of details of the top secret surveillance program nor Edward Snowden, spokesman Jay Carney said today.
Mr Carney also said he did not expect the debate over the surveillance program to overshadow President Barack Obama’s trip to Europe next week to the G8 summit and to Berlin.
The United States and Hong Kong signed their extradition treaty in 1996, a year before the former British colony was returned to China. It allows for the exchange of criminal suspects in a formal process that may also involve the Chinese government.
The treaty went into force in 1998 and provides that Hong Kong authorities can hold Mr Snowden for 60 days, following a US request that includes probable cause, while Washington prepares a formal extradition request. Some lawyers with expertise in extraditions said it would be a challenge for Mr Snowden to circumvent the treaty if the US government decides to prosecute him.
Asked about accessing data held by multinationals in Ireland, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner said he knew intelligence agencies had access to information in a general way .
Speaking on RTÉ radio this morning, Billy Hawkes said certain access to information is justified. “I think it’s nothing particularly new that there would be access by intelligence services to this data if it was required for legitimate reasons. Things like searching out for terrorists,” he said.
“I don’t think it’ll come as much of a surprise that in fact US intelligence services do have access to information from US companies that have data centres here, like Microsoft and Google. These are American companies.”
Mr Hawkes added that under Irish law, gardaí too have significant access to information.