HONG KONG — The U.S. State Department has asked Hong Kong to extradite Edward Snowden to face espionage and theft charges in the United States, officials confirmed Saturday, setting off what is likely to be a tangled and protracted fight over his fate.
Tom Donilon, President Obama’s national-security adviser, told CBS Radio News that the request makes “a good case” under the extradition treaty between the United States and Hong Kong for the return of Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor whose disclosures about U.S. surveillance programs have riveted the country. “Hong Kong has been a historically good partner of the United States in law-enforcement matters, and we expect them to comply with the treaty in this case,” Donilon said.
A public battle over the status of Snowden could prove uncomfortable for the Obama administration. His revelations have provoked new criticism of the NSA’s eavesdropping and data collection, and a drawn-out legal struggle could put a spotlight on tension between Obama’s pledges of transparency and civil liberties and his administration’s persistent secrecy and unprecedented leak prosecutions.
For the past week, Snowden, 30, appears to have been staying in an apartment in Hong Kong’s Western district that is controlled by the Hong Kong government’s security branch, according to a person who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Snowden appears to have been granted access to the apartment after seeking protection from the Hong Kong police against a possible rendition attempt by the United States, the person said.
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Snowden is charged with unauthorized communication of national-defense information, willful communication of classified communications intelligence information and theft of government property. The first two are under the Espionage Act and each of the three crimes carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison on conviction.
He left a Hong Kong hotel room two weeks ago after revealing that he was the one who leaked highly classified documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post. Hong Kong police officials would not comment Saturday about Snowden’s whereabouts.
If and when the Hong Kong police detain him, Snowden can then appeal to a magistrate for his release. But he faces another complication: His 90-day tourist visa in Hong Kong runs out in mid-August, giving the authorities another reason to keep him in custody.
The more daunting challenge facing the United States is its expected request to have Snowden sent back to the U.S. to face criminal charges.
A senior Obama administration official suggested Saturday that strong pressure was being applied privately on Hong Kong authorities to swiftly return Snowden. “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,” the official said.
The request faces political and legal complications.
In recent weeks, Snowden’s plight has been seized on by multiple groups: by Hong Kong’s vocal human-rights movement, by pro-Beijing activists attracted to his defiance of the United States, and by those angered by Snowden’s claims that Hong Kong was itself the target of aggressive U.S. surveillance efforts.
Snowden and his lawyers could tie up any effort to have him sent back to the United States by claiming that “his offense is a political offense,” said Regina Ip, a former Hong Kong secretary of security and a current legislator. She added that such a claim would have “to go through various levels of our courts.” The United States’ surrender treaty with Hong Kong has an exception for political offenses.
Alternatively, Snowden could apply for asylum. Finally, China could also apply behind-the-scenes pressure to slow down or block the effort to have Snowden turned over. Hong Kong enjoys legal autonomy from mainland China, but the Chinese government can intervene in diplomatic and defense matters.