HONG KONG/WASHINGTON - Edward Snowden, the self-confessed leaker of secret surveillance documents, claimed Wednesday that the United States has mounted massive hacking operations against hundreds of Chinese targets since 2009.
The former contractor, whose work at the National Security Agency gave him access to highly classified U.S. intelligence, made the assertions in an interview with the South China Morning Post. The newspaper said he showed it “unverified documents” describing an extensive U.S. campaign to obtain information from computers in Hong Kong and mainland China.
“We hack network backbones — like huge Internet routers, basically — that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one,” he told the newspaper.
According to Snowden, the NSA has engaged in more than 61,000 hacking operations worldwide, including hundreds aimed at Chinese targets such as universities, businesses and officials.
The interview was the first time Snowden has surfaced publicly since he acknowledged in interviews Sunday with The Washington Post and The Guardian newspaper that he was responsible for disclosing classified documents outlining extensive U.S. surveillance efforts in the United States.
Senior American officials have accused China of hacking into U.S. military and business computers. Snowden’s claims of extensive U.S. hacking of Chinese computers tracks assertions made repeatedly by senior Chinese officials that they are victims of similar cyberintrusions.
In Washington, the director of the NSA vigorously defended surveillance programs as effective tools in keeping the U.S. safe, telling Congress that the information collected has disrupted dozens of terrorist attacks, without offering details.
In his first congressional testimony since revelations about the top-secret operations, U.S. Army Gen. Keith Alexander insisted Wednesday that the public needs to know more about how the programs operate amid increasing unease about rampant government snooping and fears that Americans’ civil liberties are being trampled.
“I do think it’s important that we get this right, and I want the American people to know that we’re trying to be transparent here, protect civil liberties and privacy but also the security of this country,” Alexander told a Senate panel.
Alexander described the steps the government takes once it suspects a terrorist organization is about to act — all within the laws approved by Congress and under stringent oversight from the courts. He said the programs have led to “disrupting or contributing to the disruption of terrorist attacks.”
However, he also warned that revelations about the secret programs have eroded agency capabilities and, as a result, the U.S. and its allies won’t be as safe as they were two weeks ago.
“Some of these are still going to be classified — and should be, because if we tell the terrorists every way that we’re going to track them, they will get through and Americans will die,” he said.
Snowden, in his interview with the South China Morning Post, posted online Wednesday, said he stood by his decision to seek asylum in Hong Kong, a semiautonomous city, after leaking documents about a high-level U.S. surveillance program.
“People who think I made a mistake in picking Hong Kong as a location misunderstood my intentions,” he said in the interview. “I am not here to hide from justice. I am here to reveal criminality.”
He added, “I have had many opportunities to flee H.K., but I would rather stay and fight the United States government in the courts, because I have faith in Hong Kong’s rule of law.”By speaking with Hong Kong’s oldest English-language newspaper, Snowden seemed to be directly addressing the city he has chosen as his safe harbor.
And by disclosing that he possesses documents that he says describe U.S. hacking against China, he appeared to be trying to win support from the Chinese government.
Snowden told the Hong Kong newspaper that he was describing what he says are American cyberattacks on Chinese targets to illustrate “the hypocrisy of the U.S. government when it claims that it does not target civilian infrastructure, unlike its adversaries.”
He said in the interview with the paper that he has “been given no reason to doubt (Hong Kong’s) legal system,” adding, “My intention is to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate.”
Snowden is up against an extradition treaty between the United States and Hong Kong that many view as being clear. In the vast majority of cases, Hong Kong must cooperate with U.S. government requests for help apprehending suspected criminals.
The United States has yet to file a formal extradition request, although there are other ways for the governments to be cooperating.
James To Kun-sun, a Hong Kong legislator and solicitor, said that even without an extradition request, the United States can ask Hong Kong law enforcement to watch Snowden while the U.S. Justice Department moves on its investigation.
The FBI has a legal attache in Hong Kong, and Snowden has also identified a CIA presence in the city.
“I suspect in this case . . . the FBI tells the H.K. police, ‘The request will be very soon,’ and (they can) ask police to keep an eye on him,” Kun-sun said.
Once an extradition request is received, a judge in Hong Kong will decide whether it falls under the treaty and whether local law enforcement should help the United States by, for example, collecting evidence or carrying out an arrest. Snowden could also appeal any decision, so the process could be drawn out.
“As long as I am assured a free and fair trial, and asked to appear, that seems reasonable,” Snowden said in the interview.
He added that he plans to stay in Hong Kong as long as the city will have him.