The US and Snowden meltdown
US may have made the mistake of simply 'going through the motions' over extradition request
Hong Kong made it clear to Washington it would need more information before arresting Edward Snowden and did not make "excuses" to allow him to leave, the justice secretary said.
Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung made the comments in Beijing yesterday as US administration officials attempted to cast doubt on the Hong Kong version of the events that led to Snowden flying to Moscow on Sunday despite the US request for his arrest.
Yuen said he told US Attorney General Eric Holder during a telephone call on June 20 that the Department of Justice would need clarification of the request for Snowden's arrest and was preparing a list of questions.
"I believe that my message was very clear," he said.
US officials insisted they followed procedure and said Hong Kong's concerns about the arrest request amounted to a stalling tactic. They claimed no questions were raised over the charges until June 21, the day the charges became public in the US.
One US official close to the discussions said Hong Kong's claim that it could not properly identify Snowden because of inconsistencies in his middle name was "laughable", noting that his videotaped confession was being replayed "all over the news".
But Yuen, who was in Beijing for a conference on arbitration, rejected US claims the call for clarification was a delaying tactic.
"I disagree that it is an excuse," Yuen said, reiterating that the department had acted in full accordance with the law.
Questions are being raised in the US about why Washington did not make more diplomatic overtures to request Snowden's extradition. For the first 12 days, the US administration's effort to extradite Snowden was a by-the-book legal affair - overseen by the US Justice Department and involving few, if any, diplomatic overtures, said senior US officials.
That legalistic approach resulted in a political and public relations debacle. By the time US officials began applying diplomatic pressure on the Hong Kong and mainland authorities last weekend, it was too late. Snowden boarded the flight to Moscow in search of asylum.
"The administration followed the playbook, 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 Vladeck, an associate dean at American University's Washington College of Law, said the administration made the mistake of just going "through the motions".
He said: "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 co-operation of the Hong Kong - and, perhaps, Beijing - authorities."
The White House's National Security Council has co-ordinated the broad response to the Snowden case, but let officials at the Justice Department - lawyers, not diplomats - take the lead on the extradition process and make their own decisions, according to a senior administration official.
On June 14, the US filed criminal charges against Snowden in federal court, but took a gamble - sealing the charges so they would not be made public.
US officials said they feared Snowden might flee if he found out about the charges. They realised they had hit a snag only when the charges were unsealed. That is when the Hong Kong authorities raised questions.
As US officials fired off their first statement warning Hong Kong against complicating relations with the US, they learned Snowden was on a flight to Moscow. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the Hong Kong authorities "were well aware of our interest in Mr Snowden and had plenty of time to prohibit his travel".
On Tuesday, Yuen said the US failed to explain how two of the three charges in its arrest request fell within the scope of the extradition deal signed in 1996.