PRISM whistleblower Edward Snowden has left Hong Kong, according to an announcement from the Hong Kong government made Sunday afternoon. With assistance from WikiLeaks, Snowden is seeking asylum in Ecuador, according to the Ecuadorean foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño Aroca.
Hong Kong says that Snowden left "on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel." The Hong Kong government rebuffed extradition pressures from the United States, saying that "the documents provided by the US government did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law." In the same statement, Hong Kong says it has formally requested clarification from the US about recent reports — facilitated by Snowden — that US government agencies hacked computer systems in Hong Kong.
In a separate statement issued today, WikiLeaks announced that it is assisting Snowden as he exits Hong Kong, and that "he is bound for a democratic nation via a safe route for the purposes of asylum." Later Sunday afternoon, WikiLeaks amended its original statement to reflect that Snowden is headed to the Republic of Ecuador.
"He is bound for a democratic nation."
WikiLeaks says that Snowden is being escorted by its own "diplomats and legal advisors," and that he requested assistance from WikiLeaks to ensure his safety. WikiLeaks' legal director, Baltasar Garzon, said that "the WikiLeaks legal team and I are interested in preserving Mr. Snowden's rights and protecting him as a person." Garzon said that Snowden's treatment in wake of making public disclosures "is an assault against the people."
Rumors of Snowden seeking asylum have swirled since he revealed himself on June 9th, just three days after The Guardian and The Washington Post published the classified information in his possession. So far, Snowden has leaked slides from an NSA presentation that detail the PRISM surveillance program — a program that allegedly captures data belonging to innocent US citizens from major technology service providers, including Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Apple, and others.
The US government has vehemently denied that the PRISM program is scandalous, with President Obama, key members of Congress, and intelligence agency officials claiming that the government's surveillance programs respect civil liberties thanks to judicial oversight. (Critics contend that oversight, conducted in secret by the FISA court, lacks transparency.)
After weeks of both heated criticism and praise for Snowden's actions from the public, the US government filed criminal charges against him on June 21st. Two of the charges are related to the 1917 Espionage Act.
Since filing the charges, the US government has pressured Hong Kong to extradite Snowden. Yesterday, a senior White House official said that "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." Contrary to the Obama administration's expectations, Hong Kong did not cooperate with the extradition request.
The Guardian has received a statement from an unnamed US Department of Justice spokesperson, indicating that the US will pursue Snowden outside of Hong Kong. "We will continue to discuss this matter with Hong Kong," the spokesperson said, "and pursue relevant law enforcement cooperation with other countries where Mr. Snowden may be attempting to travel."
US lawmakers are already reacting harshly to news of Snowden's flight from Hong Kong. This morning on Meet The Press, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) said that Snowden's alleged choice to fly to Cuba and Venezuela undermines his whistleblower claims, and that the government must exhaust all legal options to bring him back to the US, Reuters reports.
The Guardian reports that Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) pointed the finger at Russia this morning on CNN's State of the Union, saying that "Putin always seems almost eager to stick a finger in the eye of the United States." As The Hill reports, Schumer suggested that Putin is "abetting Snowden's escape," and threatened that "it will have serious consequences for the United States–Russia relationship."
"Let the Russians know there will be consequences if they harbor this guy."
Repeating hawkish comments made earlier this month, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said that "I hope we'll chase [Snowden] to the ends of the earth, bring him to justice and let the Russians know there will be consequences if they harbor this guy." The Hill reports that Graham's comments were made in an appearance on Fox News Sunday. "The freedom trail is not exactly China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela," Graham said.
Appearing on CBS's Face The Nation, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman, said that Snowden may have "over 200 separate items" of classified information, warning that "it may really put people in jeopardy," The Hill reports. "We need to know exactly what he has," she said. "He could have a lot, lot more." Feinstein's comments follow those made by Congressional colleagues this morning, blasting Snowden's reputation and his decision to depart from Hong Kong.
NSA Director Keith Alexander, appearing this morning on ABC's This Week, criticized Snowden, saying that he's "clearly an individual who's betrayed the trust and confidence we had in him." Alexander said that "this is an individual who is not acting, in my opinion, with noble intent."
Alexander also responded to questioning about South China Morning Post's report — facilitated by Snowden — that the US engaged in hacking against targets in Hong Kong. Alexander did not deny the allegations, saying that "we have interest in those who collect on us as an intelligence agency," and that he is confident "we're following the laws that our country has in doing what we do."
We will update this story as we receive more information.
Thanks, Hayden RU!