The movie-worthy saga around former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden ramped up significantly over the weekend, as petitions were signed, espionage charges pressed, and extradition attempts failed.
In another twist on Monday, Edward Snowden failed to show up for a Moscow to Havana flight that would have been the first leg in a trip to Ecuador, where Snowden is now seeking asylum.
This came as feelings about Snowden at home were mixed. A petition filed at WhiteHouse.gov calling for President Obama to extend "a full, free, and absolute pardon for any crimes [Edward Snowden] has committed or may have committed related to blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs" hit 100,000 signatures on Saturday, which by White House policy, means the president will now have to officially respond. This happened within 24 hours of the federal government officially filing charges against Snowden, which included theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and the willful communication of classified communications intelligence information with an unauthorized person.
The criminal complaint, most of which was sealed, was dated on June 14. Because the last two charges fall under the U.S. Espionage Act, Snowden could face heavy fines and over ten years in prison if captured and convicted. Some legal experts were wary of that tactic, however, noting that foreign courts are much more likely to grant asylum for political offenses than, say, theft of government property.
The Obama administration and other top officials have been relentlessly defending the NSA surveillance programs, which were brought to light when multiple classified documents were leaked to reporters at the Guardian and the Washington Post. Snowden, formerly employed as a contractor with the firm Booz Allen Hamilton, claimed credit for the leaks in an interview earlier this month. He left his hotel shortly thereafter, moving to an undisclosed safe house elsewhere on the island — a situation that sparked multiple protests in support of the former contractor by the libertarian-oriented residents of Hong Kong.
Making things more complicated still was a report by the South China Morning Post, a local publication claiming to have interviewed Snowden about multiple U.S. intelligence efforts into Chinese data. "The NSA does all sorts of things like hack Chinese cell phone companies to steal all of your SMS (texting) data," the paper reports Snowden to have said in an interview. It claims he accused the U.S. government hacked China's Tsinghua University.
"If Hong Kong doesn't act soon, it will complicate our bilateral relations and raise questions about Hong Kong's commitment to the rule of law," said one Obama administration senior official, who spoke under terms on anonymity.
But then Snowden left. In a remarkably-timed move full of all the Hollywood-style drama that 21st century intelligence seems to attract, the former contractor boarded a flight from Hong Kong to Moscow, aided by top lawyers from WikiLeaks — a strong supporter of government transparency and the free flow of classified information. His flight, Aeroflot SU213, landed on Sunday at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport where diplomats from Ecuador met him. He is said to be staying in a hotel inside the terminal overnight, as he doesn't have a Russian visa.
"Mr. Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower who exposed evidence of a global surveillance regime conducted by US and UK intelligence agencies, has left Hong Kong legally," WikiLeaks said in a statement. "He is bound for a democratic nation via a safe rout for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from WikiLeaks."
The site said that Snowden had reached out to them for legal help, though it wasn't clear whether he suspected the Hong Kong government was ready to turn him over.
"I don't [know if he's planning to stay in Moscow]," said Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian president Vladimir Putin. "I heard about the potential [arrival] from the press. I know nothing."
Snowden was scheduled to fly out again to Havana on Monday morning, and expected to end up in either Caracas or Quito ... but that never happened.
As of Monday morning, the whereabouts of the former CIA analyst are a mystery after he did not catch expected flight to Cuba.
American officials, meanwhile, are furious and embarrassed as their number one political dissident (not to mention global celebrity) continues to evade attempts to bring him back. The Hong Kong government released a remarkable statement informing the U.S. that Snowden had already left the country, but that even if he hadn't, the extradition paperwork didn't comply with their necessary legal standards and wouldn't have been sufficient for an arrest.
"Since the documents provided by the U.S. government did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law, the HKSAR government has requested the U.S. government to provide additional information so that the department of justice could consider whether the U.S. government's request can meet the relevant legal conditions. As the HKSAR government has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr. Snowden from leaving Hong Kong."
"I'd like to find out why our papers were not in compliance," said a frustrated Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "That would be a big mistake by the Department of Justice," he added.
The letter then concluded with a warning, citing the alleged conversation between Snowden and reporters at the South China Morning Post. "Meanwhile, the HKSAR government has formally written to the U.S. government requesting clarification on earlier reports about the hacking of commuter systems in Hong Kong by U.S. government agencies. The HKSAR Government will continue to follow up on the matter so as to protect the legal rights of the people of Hong Kong."
The whole episode, frankly, is incredible. America's dirty laundry has been exposed. The most powerful nation in the world is after Edward Snowden, revealing just how far the U.S. is willing to go to hear our secrets, and keep its own.
It's especially uncomfortable given the U.S. government's attempt to paint China as the bad guy amidst growing cyber security concerns, culminating in an official Pentagon report in May tracing multiple hacks into corporate and government systems to Chinese computers. Now, allegedly, we're doing exactly the same thing. Which makes us look, for lack of a better word, hypocritical. And stupid. And totally untrustworthy to take up the mantle as the great global moral compass, that we so love to be.
And now two of the most significant geo-political players seem totally unmotivated to return Snowden into the hands of domestic prosecutors, further frustrating officials back home who are having an increasingly difficult time retroactively selling the programs to an American public that, as of last month, had no idea they even existed. Nancy Pelosi was booed onstage over the weekend while trying to defend the programs. Forty-three percent of Americans think the president has gone "too far" in restricting people's liberties; his approval rating among young voters has slid 17% in just under a month.
"The bottom line is very simple," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on CNN's State of the Union. "Allies are supposed to treat each other in decent ways and Putin always seems eager to put a finger in the eye of the United States, whether it is Syria, Iran and now of course with Snowden. That's not how allies should treat each other and I think it will have serious consequences of the United States-Russia relationship."
It is assumed that the Justice Department will file new extradition requests to wherever Snowden settles, though given his suspected destinations, not to mention the legal help he's getting from diplomats and WikiLeaks, that's a process that could take years. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), joining the growing chorus of politicians furious at the lack of support the U.S. has been getting from foreign players, looked inward for blame to the maligned Director of National Intelligence, Gen. James Clapper. During a March 12 hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Clapper told Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that the NSA did not spy on Americans (video below).
"I think it is going to be an open question with history about how this young man is judged," Paul said. "I do think when history looks at this they are going to contrast the behavior of James Clapper, our national intelligence director, with Edward Snowden. Mr. Clapper lied in Congress in defiance of the law in the name of security. Mr. Snowden told the truth in the name of privacy."
Paul's father, retired Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has previously spoken out in support of Snowden, saying both he and the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald "have done a great service to the American people by exposing the truth about what our government is doing in secret.
James Clapper before the Senate Intelligence Committee.