HONG KONG – The message was blunt and was delivered Friday night by a shadowy emissary who didn’t identify himself but knew enough to locate Edward Snowden’s secret caretaker: The 30-year-old American accused of leaking some of his country’s most sensitive secrets should leave Hong Kong, the messenger said, and if he decided to depart the authorities would not interfere with his travel plans.
Since he had revealed himself on June 9 as the person who had turned over classified documents to The Washington Post and to The Guardian, Snowden had moved between different hideaways guided by a Hong Kong resident, according to one of his lawyers, Albert Ho. Like the emissary, the caretaker’s name has not been disclosed, but Ho said the resident “must be well-connected.”
For more than a week, the U.S. government had been pressing the government of Hong Kong, a semiautonomous part of China, to arrest Snowden. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder placed a call to his counterpart in Hong Kong. U.S. diplomats, the FBI and lawyers at the Justice Department all weighed in to urge Snowden’s detention. But the newly disclosed details of Snowden’s stay in Hong Kong indicate that the authorities there, probably acting with the guidance of Beijing, didn’t want him to stay in Hong Kong for a long, messy legal process to determine whether he would be extradited, U.S. officials said Monday. The new information also raises question about whether the White House could have done more to prevent the former National Security Agency contractor from slipping away.
On the Friday that Snowden was quietly encouraged to leave, officials in Hong Kong were asking the U.S. Justice Department for more information about its provisional arrest warrant. Charles Mok, a Hong Kong legislator, said it appeared that the U.S. request for an arrest warrant never made it to a judge there. Rather, it seems to have been delayed by the administration of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who is widely viewed as being sympathetic to Beijing.
The U.S. government is facing much the same quandary now that Snowden is in Russia, where the government of President Vladimir Putin has refused to extradite him to the United States and may be only too happy to watch Washington squirm.
U.S. officials have expressed their frustration with Snowden’s elusiveness in unusually blunt terms. “We are just not buying that this was a technical decision by a Hong Kong immigration official,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive, despite a valid arrest warrant. And that decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship.”
There had been speculation that the U.S. government would try to detain Snowden itself somehow. Julian Assange, the founder of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which has been advising and supporting Snowden, said in a conference call with reporters Monday that “the kidnapping or incapacitating of Mr. Snowden must have been considered (by the U.S. government).”
But former intelligence officials said a rendition operation to snatch Snowden off the streets of Hong Kong was always a fantasy. There would be no element of surprise, no cooperation from local intelligence officials, and a target who had burrowed deep into the city’s crowded neighborhoods. Even keeping him under CIA or FBI surveillance would be daunting, former officials said, because of the public attention surrounding the case as well as the fact that U.S. operatives are themselves under heavy surveillance in China and Russia.
“He didn’t go out,” Ho said of Snowden. “He spent all his time inside, in a tiny place.”
Ho said he first met Snowden late Tuesday night, getting into a car at a prearranged spot. Inside the car was Snowden, wearing a hat and sunglasses.
Snowden didn’t speak. When they arrived at the home where Snowden was staying, the American whispered that everyone had to put their cellphones in the refrigerator. “Then he became very outspoken,” Ho said.
Snowden was “very smart” and analytical, said his lawyer, although he didn’t seem to have anticipated just how complicated his situation in Hong Kong would become. “I don’t think he ever had a well-thought-out plan,” said Ho, although he added that Snowden seemed to have researched places where he could take refuge.
For two hours that night, Snowden talked with his lawyers, who also included Jonathan Man, an associate at Ho’s firm, and Robert Tibbo, a refugee human rights lawyer. To mark Snowden’s birthday later that week — he turned 30 Friday — Ho brought over a large pizza and fried chicken. There was also Snowden’s preferred beverage, Pepsi.
The prospect of being detained worried Snowden, said Ho, especially because he would lose access to his computer, a situation that would be “totally intolerable.”
Snowden asked Ho to reach out to the Hong Kong government to get a sense of what it was thinking. By early Saturday morning in Hong Kong, Snowden learned of reports that he was the subject of a criminal complaint in the Eastern District of Virginia and that the United States had requested his arrest. There was nothing particularly surprising about the news, but it added to his sense of anxiety, Ho said.
Snowden told his lawyer about the strange message relayed through an intermediary that he should leave Hong Kong. He asked Ho to talk to the Hong Kong government to see whether it would confirm the signal.
By this point, Snowden was in contact with people from WikiLeaks. He considered flying out of Hong Kong on Saturday but balked for some reason. WikiLeaks officials in London said they had assisted Snowden in making his formal application for asylum in Ecuador and had also approached Iceland and “other countries” on Snowden’s behalf.
Later Saturday, senior officials in Washington, including national security adviser Thomas Donilon, signaled their impatience with Hong Kong.
The U.S. was also secretly taking steps to block Snowden from traveling. Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview with CNN on Monday that “the moment the [criminal complaint] was unsealed and we knew of it, at that point, his passport was pulled within two hours.” According to law enforcement officials, the U.S. government would not have been able to pull his passport earlier because the charges were still under seal.
On Saturday evening, Ho said he got a noncommittal response from the Hong Kong authorities. “There’s nothing the government can say,” was how he described it.
On Sunday morning, Snowden, accompanied by one of his lawyers, entered Hong Kong International Airport. They were followed by plainclothes Hong Kong policemen as they made their way, unmolested, through the regular departure channels.
Hong Kong officials said Snowden presented his U.S. passport although WikiLeaks has said it had already arranged Ecuadoran travel papers for Snowden. A WikiLeaks official joined Snowden on the flight. Hong Kong announced Snowden’s departure when his Aeroflot flight to Moscow had exited Chinese airspace. WikiLeaks said Russian officials were told of Snowden’s travel plans prior to his departure from Hong Kong.
Former senior U.S. officials who served in Moscow said Washington has little leverage in seeking cooperation on Snowden and that the Russian government likely has more to gain by holding the fugitive and ultimately allowing him to obtain asylum in another country.
Fiona Hill, the co-author of a biography of Putin and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the Russians, who have been frustrated in their attempts to get opponents of the government extradited from the West, are likely to let the United States “stew in its own juices.”
“They don’t want to waste this opportunity to extract what they can,” Hill said, “so they don’t want Mr. Snowden to fly off too quickly.”