spy games

How Did the U.S. Let Snowden Leave Hong Kong?

NSA leaker Edward Snowden is now believed to be in a Moscow airport, bound possibly for Cuba, Venezula, or Ecuador, following a dramatic exit from Hong Kong over the weekend. Snowden’s flight complicated the United States’ relationship with countries on several continents, and now many are questioning how he was able to elude U.S. authorities. Washington asked officials in Hong Kong to arrest Snowden in anticipation of extradition, but only found out when he left for Moscow that the request was found to be “insufficient.” 

The U.S. didn’t revoke Snowden’s passport until Saturday, though it’s unclear if authorities in Hong Kong were aware of that when he boarded the plane. It might not have made a difference anyway, since Wikileaks helped Snowden obtain special refugee travel documents from Ecuador. The U.S. also failed to ask Interpol to issue a “red notice” which would have triggered alerts at the airport to delay or stop Snowden.

It seems the U.S. failed to act because it believed negotiations for Snowden’s extradition from Hong Kong were going well. An administration official told the New York Times that the government didn’t request a red notice because they’re “most valuable when the whereabouts of a fugitive are unknown,” and it was already trying to have Snowden arrested in Hong Kong under an existing agreement between the two countries. “At no point, in all of our discussions through Friday, did the authorities in Hong Kong raise any issues regarding the sufficiency of the U.S.’s provisional arrest request,” added a Justice Department official. “In light of this, we find their decision to be particularly troubling.”

Anonymous officials tell the Times that the decision to let Snowden go was actually made by Chinese authorities. While Hong Kong claims their judicial process in the matter remained independent of Beijing, sources say China has jurisdiction over foreign policy. One person familiar with the talks between Beijing and Hong Kong said Chinese officials “will be relieved he’s gone — the popular sentiment in Hong Kong and China is to protect him because he revealed United States surveillance here, but the governments don’t want trouble in the relationship.”

In a statement issued early on Monday, spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the National Security Council is “disappointed” that authorities in Hong Kong let Snowden flee, and alluded to Beijing’s involvement, saying, “We have registered our strong objections to the authorities in Hong Kong as well as to the Chinese government through diplomatic channels and noted that such behavior is detrimental to U.S.-Hong Kong and U.S.-China bilateral relations.”

She went on to implore Russia, the U.S. frenemy that currently controls Snowdens’ future, to remember that the U.S. has returned many Russian criminals, and the two nations have been cooperating recently in the Boston Marathon bombing investigation. “We expect the Russian Government to look at all options available to expel Mr. Snowden back to the U.S. to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged,” she said.

How Did the U.S. Let Snowden Leave Hong Kong?