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Ex-CIA whistleblower ‘missing’ as leak rocks US

5 min

Edward Snowden, who leaked top-secret information about US surveillance programmes, has reportedly disappeared after checking out of his Hong Kong hotel. Meanwhile, debate raged in the US over whether the former CIA employee is a hero or a criminal.


A contractor at the National Security Agency who leaked details of top-secret US surveillance programmes has reportedly disappeared after checking out of his Hong Kong hotel on Monday, ahead of a likely push by the US government to have him extradited to face charges.

Edward Snowden, 29, who leaked information to prominent newspapers last week revealing the NSA’s broad monitoring of phone and Internet data from companies such as Google and Facebook, checked out of his Hong Kong hotel hours after going public in a video released on Sunday by Britain’s left-leaning Guardian newspaper.

The disclosures by Snowden have sent shock waves across Washington, where several lawmakers called for the extradition and prosecution of the former CIA employee behind one of the most significant security leaks in US history, while others expressed admiration.

Still in Hong Kong, but whereabouts unknown

Snowden, who the Guardian said had been working at the NSA for four years as a contractor for outside companies, told the Guardian he had copied the secret documents at the NSA office in Hawaii three weeks ago and had told his supervisor that he needed “a couple of weeks” off for epilepsy treatments. He flew to Hong Kong on May 20.

Staff at a luxury hotel in Hong Kong told Reuters that Snowden had checked out at noon on Monday. Ewen MacAskill, a Guardian journalist, said later in the day that he believed Snowden was still in Hong Kong.

Snowden told the Guardian that he went to Hong Kong in hopes it would be a place where he might be able to resist US prosecution attempts, although the former British colony has an extradition treaty with the United States.

In Hong Kong, officials were cautious in discussing a spy drama that could entangle US -China relations just a few days after Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping met at a summit in California where cyber security was a prime topic.

If Snowden is charged on criminal counts as many lawmakers and officials expect, the focus will turn to the extradition treaty that the United States and Hong Kong signed in 1996, a year before the former British colony was returned to China.

The treaty, which allows for the exchange of criminal suspects in a formal process that also may involve the Chinese government, went into effect in 1998.

It says that Hong Kong authorities can hold a US suspect for up to 60 days after the United States submits a request indicating there is probable cause to believe the suspect violated American law. In Snowden’s case, such a request could lead Hong Kong authorities to hold him while Washington prepares a formal extradition request.
Snowden could also try to stay in Hong Kong by seeking political asylum.

‘We should be thankful for Snowden’

Snowden said he turned over the documents to The Washington Post and the Guardian in order to expose the NSA’s vast surveillance of phone and Internet data.

The former technical assistant at the CIA, who had been working at the NSA as an employee of contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, said he became disenchanted with Obama for continuing the surveillance policies of George W. Bush, Obama’s predecessor.

“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,” Snowden told the Guardian, which published the video interview with him, dated June 6, on its website.

In Washington, several members of Congress and intelligence officials showed little sympathy for Snowden’s argument. The US Justice Department already is in the initial stages of a criminal investigation.

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told TV channel NBC that the leaks “violate a sacred trust for this country. The damage that these revelations incur are huge”.

At the same time, there were some signs that Snowden’s stance against government surveillance and his defense of personal privacy was resonating with at least some Americans.

Supporters flocked to Snowden’s aid on the Internet, with more than 25,000 people signing an online petition urging US President Barack Obama to pardon Snowden even before he has been charged. A separate effort on Facebook to raise funds for Snowden’s legal defense netted nearly $8,000 in just a few hours.

Dividing opinion

Some lawmakers were more cautious, however, saying the surveillance programs revealed by the Guardian and The Post raised legitimate concerns not just about citizens’ privacy, but also about whether the Obama administration had done enough to keep Congress informed about such surveillance, as required by law.

“The government does not need to know more about what we are doing. We need to know more about what the government is doing,” said Ron Paul, a former House member and unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate in 2012, via Campaign for Liberty, a nonprofit organisation which focuses on educating about constitutional issues. “We should be thankful for individuals like Edward Snowden,” Paul said.

Some other politicians echoed that sentiment. “In my mind, things that may have been appropriate in the aftermath of 9/11 and in the weeks and months and even years after that, may no longer be appropriate today,” Republican Representative Luke Messer of Indiana said on TV channel MSNBC.

At the White House on Monday, Obama spokesman Jay Carney sidestepped questions about Snowden. Responding to questions about the White House’s efforts to brief Congress about the NSA’s surveillance programs, a senior administration official released a list of 22 briefings that had been conducted for lawmakers over a 14-month span.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

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