The missteps have thrust the United States into a geopolitical confrontation that has embarrassed the Obama administration and strained relations with China, Russia and other countries.
President Obama on Thursday defended the handling of the international chase for the former government contractor, calling it a legal matter and saying he was “not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker.” Asked whether he had personally called Chinese President Xi Jinping or Russian President Vladimir Putin about Snowden, Obama said he had not.
“I shouldn’t have to,” Obama added at a news conference in Senegal. “I’m not going to have one case of a suspect who we’re trying to extradite suddenly being elevated to the point where I’ve got to start doing wheeling and dealing and trading on a whole host of other issues simply to get a guy extradited.”
But many experts in extradition law argue that that is precisely what’s needed in the case. They said the Obama administration underestimated how much diplomatic finesse and creativity would be required to detain Snowden, allowing him to move further outside the reach of the U.S. government.
“The administration followed the playbook and played it correctly, except what they didn’t seem to anticipate is that Hong Kong would not comply,” said Jacques Semmelman, a former federal prosecutor and expert on extradition procedure.
Stephen I. Vladeck, an associate dean at American University’s Washington College of Law who studies national security law, said the administration made mistakes by just going “through the motions.”
“It should have been clear from the get-go that the government was going to need more than just a prima facie case for extradition here, but also the political and diplomatic cooperation of the Hong Kong — and, perhaps, Chinese — authorities,” Vladeck said.
P.J. Crowley, a former State Department spokesman under Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said extradition requests as high-profile as Snowden’s should not be seen “through a legal lens.”
“This is about politics and about perceived and competing interests on all sides,” Crowley said. He added: “When it becomes public, then it becomes a diplomatic issue. And when it becomes personal, it becomes a political issue.”
To be sure, the full extent of the Obama administration’s diplomatic entreaties to Hong Kong and Beijing might not be known publicly. Considering the profile of Snowden’s case, experts said they would be surprised if there had not been secret high-level diplomatic talks between U.S. officials and authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing.