HONG KONG — The US State Department has asked Hong Kong to extradite Edward J. 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 contractor whose disclosures about US 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 harsh spotlight on the 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, said a person who has followed the case and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Snowden appears to have been granted access to the apartment after seeking protection from Hong Kong police against a possible rendition attempt by the United States, the person said.
Snowden 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.
Stephen Vickers, who oversaw police criminal intelligence in Hong Kong before Britain returned the territory to China in 1997, said Saturday that the Hong Kong police should be able to detain him once Hong Kong government lawyers have determined that the charges Snowden faces in the United States are also illegal offenses in Hong Kong.
“I have no doubt whenever the government decides to take action, they will pick him up fast,” said Vickers, who now runs a risk consulting firm.
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 local 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 United States to face criminal charges in the Eastern District of Virginia, where prosecutors have handled many major national security cases.
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 US 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. Such a claim would have to go through several levels of US courts.
Alternatively, Snowden could apply for asylum. Currently, asylum claims are facing ldelays of several years in Hong Kong.