For more than a week, the U.S. government had been pressing the government of Hong Kong, a semiautonomous part of China, to arrest Snowden. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. placed a call to his counterpart in Hong Kong. U.S. diplomats, the FBI and lawyers at the Justice Department all weighed in to urge Snowden’s detention.
But the newly disclosed details of Snowden’s stay in Hong Kong indicate that the authorities there, probably acting with the guidance of Beijing, didn’t want him to stay in Hong Kong for a long, messy legal process to determine whether he would be extradited. The new information also raises questions about whether the Obama administration could have done more to prevent the former National Security Agency contractor from slipping away.
On the Friday that Snowden was quietly encouraged to leave, officials in Hong Kong were asking the U.S. Justice Department for more information about its provisional arrest warrant. Charles Mok, a Hong Kong legislator, said it appeared that the U.S. request for an arrest warrant never made it to a judge here. Rather, it seems to have been delayed by the administration of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who is widely viewed as being sympathetic to Beijing.
The U.S. government is facing much the same quandary now that Snowden is in Russia, where the government of President Vladimir Putin is disinclined to assist the United States and may be only too happy to watch Washington squirm.
U.S. officials have expressed their frustration with Snowden’s elusiveness in unusually blunt terms.
“We are just not buying that this was a technical decision by a Hong Kong immigration official,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney. “This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive, despite a valid arrest warrant. And that decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship.”
There had been widespread speculation that the U.S. government would try to detain Snowden on its own somehow. Julian Assange, the founder of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which has been advising and supporting Snowden, said in a conference call with reporters Monday that “the kidnapping or incapacitating of Mr. Snowden must have been considered [by the U.S. government].”