An apparent international cat-and-mouse game was in play Monday following the confession of Edward Snowden, a former CIA tech expert who leaked details of top-secret American surveillance programs to two news organizations and then hunkered down in a Hong Kong hotel.
- Neil Macdonald: Big Brother is listening in and no one seems to care
- Investors dump shares in firm where whistleblower Snowden worked
Snowden, 29, stepped forward over the weekend as the source of leaks to Britain's The Guardian and The Washington Post about the U.S. government's sweeping monitoring of cellphone logs and web servers in apparent counter-terrorism efforts.
Hong Kong, a former British colony returned to China in 1997, has an extradition treaty with the United States. But China has the ultimate say over extradition requests in cases where the country's foreign interests could be at stake.
Snowden said he chose Hong Kong because of its "strong tradition of free speech."
"The only thing I can do is sit here and hope the Hong Kong government does not deport me," Snowden told The Guardian.
Snowden reportedly checked out of a downtown Hong Kong hotel on Monday. His subsequent whereabouts were not immediately known, but a top-ranking official in Hong Kong law enforcement suggested in a statement that Snowden would be wise to leave the city.
Hong Kong is "obliged to comply with the terms of agreements" with the U.S. government, including extraditing fugitives, said Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing lawmaker who was once the city's top security official.
"It's actually in his best interest to leave Hong Kong," Ip said. "Hong Kong is definitely not a safe harbour for him."
Iceland may provide refuge
America's latest high-profile whistleblower — Snowden joins Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning in the annals of federal government workers who have leaked damning information to the media — has suggested he'll seek diplomatic protection in Iceland.
"My predisposition is to seek asylum in a country with shared values. The nation that most encompasses this is Iceland," the North Carolina native said over the weekend.
"They stood up for people over internet freedom. I have no idea what my future is going to be .... I don't think I have committed a crime outside the domain of the U.S. I think it will be clearly shown to be political in nature."
Two Icelandic officials have said they're open to the idea.
Birgitta Jonsdottir, an Icelandic member of parliament, and Smari McCarthy, executive director of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, issued a statement in support of Snowden.
"We feel it is our duty to offer to assist and advise Mr. Snowden to the greatest of our ability," the statement read.
"We are already working on detailing the legal protocols required to apply for asylum, and will over the course of the week be seeking a meeting with the newly appointed interior minister of Iceland ... to discuss whether an asylum request can be processed in a swift manner."
Icelandic officials say, however, they have yet to see an application from Snowden. One told USA Today in a report from London that it may not be possible to accommodate Snowden given he's not currently in Iceland.
"The main stipulation for seeking asylum in Iceland would be that the person must be in Iceland to start the process," Johannes Tomasson, the chief spokesman for Iceland's Ministry of Interior, told the newspaper. "That would be the ground rule No. 1."
Justice department investigating leaks
Glenn Greenwald, the blogger and civil liberties advocate who broke the story for The Guardian, said Monday that Snowden fled to Hong Kong because he believed he had no chance of a fair trial in his native land. Snowden, who lived in Hawaii, apparently believed Hong Kong was the most promising option available to him.
Snowden is facing a criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, currently under fire for previous leak probes. He said he leaked the information in order to protect "basic liberties for people around the world."
The Guardian reported last week that the Obama administration had been amassing call logs from the biggest wireless carrier in the country, Verizon. A day later, The Washington Post had a report on a far-reaching National Security Agency program called Prism that collected data about foreigners abroad from the world's largest web companies.
The scandal has cast a shadow over the Obama administration, even though the surveillance practices have been in place under the controversial Patriot Act since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, when George W. Bush was president.
The act gives the government sweeping surveillance powers during terrorist investigations. Many of the ongoing surveillance programs were given the green light by congressional lawmakers on both sides of the aisle under an oath of secrecy.
President Barack Obama, who once railed against such practices when running for president in 2008, went on the defensive on Friday.
"Nobody is listening to your telephone calls," he said, adding that Americans must understand there are "tradeoffs" between privacy concerns and keeping Americans safe from another terrorist attack.
WikiLeaks founder faced similar plight
Snowden's post-leak plight is similar to that of Julian Assange, the founder of the secret-sharing website WikiLeaks. The Australian-born Assange failed in an attempt in London to avoid extradition to Sweden to face rape charges, so he went to the Ecuadoran embassy in the city.
Ecuador granted him political asylum on the grounds that Sweden would likely quickly extradite him to the U.S. to face charges in the WikiLeaks saga. Assange has remained there for almost a year; Ecuadoran officials say he can live there for as long as he wants.
Britain, meantime, says Assange violated his bail conditions by fleeing to Ecuador's embassy. British officials have vowed to arrest him and send him to Sweden if he leaves the building in the tony Knightsbridge area of London.
Snowden seems under no illusions that he'll ultimately face consequences for leaking the classified information.
"I understand that I will be made to suffer for my actions," Snowden told The Guardian.
"I will be satisfied if the federation of secret law, unequal pardon and irresistible executive powers that rule the world that I love are revealed even for an instant."