Within weeks of President Obama’s meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, China and Russia have humiliated the United States as Obama looks on helplessly. They have gone out of their way to protect Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor charged with violating the Espionage Act for leaking highly classified U.S. government material regarding the NSA’s secret phone and Internet surveillance programs.
Hong Kong, the Chinese territory where Snowden first sought refuge, rejected a United States request for Snowden’s arrest and extradition on the pretext that the U.S. had not submitted the proper paperwork. Instead, Hong Kong authorities allowed him to board a flight to Moscow, from which he is said to be planning an escape route with Russia’s help to Ecuador or another anti-U.S. Latin American country. Hong Kong, by the way, would be given access to the Visa Waiver Program under the terms of the immigration bill now being considered by the Senate. In order to qualify, Hong Kong must, among other things, maintain close bilateral law enforcement cooperation with U.S. authorities. At the very least this waiver provision for Hong Kong should be stricken from the bill, pending more investigation into Hong Kong’s failure to cooperate with U.S. authorities with respect to Snowden.
The New York Times reported that, although Hong Kong likes to think of its judicial system as remaining independent of China, the Chinese government made the decision to allow Snowden to leave Hong Kong. It rejected the alternative of considering his extradition to the United States under the extradition treaty between the U.S. and Hong Kong. In the meantime, China extracted some propaganda value out of Snowden’s disclosures about the extent of NSA surveillance around the world, including in China. Snowden’s disclosures gave the Chinese government something to throw back at U.S. officials who have complained about Chinese cyber-espionage against American businesses. Chinese state-controlled media had a field day accusing the United States of hypocrisy. Moreover, according to the New York Times, Western intelligence experts whom the paper consulted believe that the Chinese government was able to drain the contents of Snowden’s laptops he had with him in Hong Kong.
However, Snowden’s continued long term presence in Hong Kong would have created a problem for China. It wanted to avoid being seen as subservient to U.S. demands by arresting Snowden and conducting a hearing to determine whether he should be extradited to the United States. At the same time, it did not want to unnecessarily upset U.S.-China relations so soon after the Obama-Xi summit by giving Snowden asylum. So it threw the Snowden hot potato over to its ally Russia, where Putin takes great pleasure in giving President Obama the back of his hand.
Russia has no intention of agreeing to Obama administration requests to turn Snowden over to U.S. authorities for prosecution. “Why should the United States expect restraint and understanding from Russia?” said Alexei Pushkov, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of the Russian parliament.
Straining credibility completely, President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary responded to a question whether Russian authorities had spoken with Snowden by saying: “Overall, we have no information about him.”
Let’s not forget that Putin was a former Soviet intelligence agent. His first position in the KGB was in a department called Service Number One, which was responsible for recruiting foreigners in the country to serve KGB intelligence purposes. As Putin’s KGB career progressed, he served undercover in East Germany. According to John Lloyd’s March 19, 2000 article in the New York Times Magazine entitled The Logic of Vladimir Putin, “His real task was to recruit agents to supply technical and economic information.”
While Putin may not consider Snowden important enough to keep in his country, it is unlikely that the former KGB agent could resist the temptation to return to his spying days and make sure that his country gets maximum information from Snowden in return for helping the fugitive escape from the clutches of those evil Americans.
WikiLeaks, whose own fugitive leader Julian Assange has been given asylum in Ecuador’s London embassy, is trying to arrange Snowden’s safe passage from Russia to Ecuador. “He is bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from WikiLeaks,” WikiLeaks boasted in a statement.
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino acknowledged in his Twitter message: “The government of Ecuador has received an asylum request from Edward Snowden.”
Snowden, who claims to have leaked the NSA information in the interest of promoting more openness and public transparency for government operations, does not seem bothered in the least that his protectors have a wretched record in that regard. China and Russia suppress freedoms of speech and press. Dissenters are routinely punished. Extreme government secrecy is the norm.
Ecuador, where Snowden may ultimately be headed, treats its own leakers of classified information, including the press, very harshly. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, “the Ecuadorean Congress, at President Rafael Correa’s insistence, passed a law that prohibits news organizations from publishing classified or confidential government documents or material from personal documents without their owner’s permission.”
Correa’s chief communications adviser, Fernando Alvarado, defended the Ecuadorian government’s crackdown on the media by describing the media as “weeds that need to be cleaned.”
Where Edward Snowden will finally end up is anyone’s guess at this time. Let’s hope the U.S. government will find a way to get him back to the United States. However, this whole episode has humiliated the United States which, like so many other foreign policy disasters, has occurred on Obama’s watch. With all of its technical prowess, U.S. intelligence services still allowed this unprecedented leak to happen. Now we are being made to look helpless by China and Russia, as they have stood in the way of the United States being able to rapidly bring Snowden back to his home country to stand trial before he does more lasting damage.
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