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NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden goes to ground following Prism revelations

By James Legge

The NSA whistleblower whose revelations continue to cause controversy on both sides of the Atlantic dropped off the radar last night, with his chances of fighting extradition to America still unclear.

 

Edward Snowden leaked information to The Guardian about the National Security Agency's broad monitoring of phone call and Internet data from large companies such as Google and Facebook, and had fled to Hong Kong.

The 29-year-old checked out of his hotel last night, and hasn't been seen since.

Snowden said he went to Hong Kong thinking he might be able to resist US prosecution attempts, despite the former British colony's extradition treaty with the United States.

But on Monday Regina Ip, chair of Hong Kong's New People’s Party and ex-security secretary, said the city was “definitely not a safe harbour” for Snowden, who had worked for government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.

She said: "We do have bilateral agreements with the US and we are duty-bound to comply with these agreements. Hong Kong is not a legal vacuum, as Mr Snowden might have thought."

Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who reported the revelations, said he had been in touch with his source, but declined to say whether he was still in Hong Kong.

He said: "He hasn't communicated a plan to me. I don't know if he has a plan."

Mr Snowden arrived in Hong Kong on May 20 and as a US citizen is legally permitted to remain for 90 days. He can also seek asylum through the UN or attempt to fly to another country which does not have an extradition agreement with the US.

Even if the US brings an extradition request, Mr Snowden could contest it on grounds of political persecution in a process that could last years.

In addition, Hong Kong's high court has ordered authorities to devise a unified standard for assessing asylum applications, effectively putting applications on hold until the new system is in place.

No charges have been brought and no warrant has been issued for Snowden's arrest, and Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, refused to say yesterday whether the US had made an extradition request or might do so in the future.

The US and Hong Kong concluded the extradition treaty with Beijing's blessing on the eve of the territory's hand back from Britain to China in 1997, but as a special autonomous region, the city is still ultimately answerable to China.

Cyberhacking and cyberespionage have emerged as the newest friction in relations that Barack Obama and China's President Xi Jinping pledged over the weekend to improve. The two ended a summit in California yesterday, which US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon called "positive and constructive."

In Washington, several lawmakers called for Snowden's extradition and prosecution, while US Senate intelligence chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein called the disclosure an "act of treason" that should be prosecuted.

Mr Snowden, a former technical assistant at the CIA, who had been working at the NSA, said he became disenchanted with Obama for continuing the surveillance policies of George W. Bush.

"I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things ... I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded," he said.

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