Edward Snowden

Glenn Greenwald on Hong Kong's key role in Snowden's NSA document leak

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 4:55am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 10:23am

Hong Kong's "brazen" defiance in the face of US attempts to extradite fugitive whistle-blower Edward Snowden was pivotal in shaping the global reaction to one of the biggest government leaks in modern American history, said a journalist instrumental in breaking the story.

A month before the first anniversary of Snowden's arrival in Hong Kong, Glenn Greenwald - one of the reporters who broke a series of stories based on a cache of classified documents leaked by the former NSA contractor - told the Sunday Morning Post that the Hong Kong government's refusal to honour an extradition request from the United States was one of his "favourite moments" in the past 11 months.

Watch: Glenn Greenwald spoke with The Post about Snowden saga in 2013

Two hours after Snowden, 30, flew out of the city bound for Moscow on June 23 last year, the Hong Kong government released a statement accusing Washington of failing to provide basic details, such as the whistle-blower's middle name.


"I can almost recite [the statement] by memory because I've read it so many times," Greenwald told the Post.

"It was funny but it was also significant because it is very rare for governments around the world to stand up in public and so brazenly defy the United States government in a matter of great importance to it.

"Hong Kong did it first, then the Russians did it, but also Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela offered him asylum and Ecuador which was planning to do so. Then you had Brazil and Germany very publicly opposing what the United States was doing," he said.

Greenwald described the statement as "mocking" and "hilarious," saying it "worked perfectly" and "was also vital to what took place after that.

"There were so many other things they could have said if they were going to release him that were much more diplomatic.

"Part of it was there was a genuine anger over the fact that your paper was able to reveal the invasion of the NSA into your citizens' telecommunications systems," Greenwald said, in reference to a Post interview with Snowden shortly after he broke cover in Hong Kong.

Snowden - now living in Russia where he was granted temporary asylum last August - had made a calculated decision to come to Hong Kong and it had paid off.

"It showed that [Snowden] had chosen this place that could actually stand up to the United States government, but at the same time he wanted a place that wouldn't be so security-laden and that it would have political values that he felt comfortable with.

"There's this history of dissent and protest in Hong Kong and the first day we were [in Hong Kong] there was this massive street protest against the Tiananmen abuses by the central Chinese government," he said, referring to the June 4 candlelight vigil.

Greenwald added: "If he were in Ecuador, they could do to him whatever they wanted. If he were in Iceland, they could snatch him up in a second; they could pressure the Icelandic government to turn him over."

In the intervening months, a period of frosty relations between the US and Hong Kong has shown signs of thawing, with a number of key legal exchange agreements going ahead.

The city's reputation as a place of political dissent and one where America had "limited" sway were key reasons why Snowden chose Hong Kong. It "was a perfect choice, even though it was far from an obvious choice," Greenwald said.

The reason Snowden chose Hong Kong "was that it provided simultaneously the security that he wanted from the US government - a place that could be independent of the US and the US couldn't do whatever it wanted - but it was also a place where there was a good amount of political freedom in the air".

"The choice of Hong Kong shaped the story in all kinds of interesting ways."

Greenwald's new book, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US surveillance state, was published last week. It offers new details of the Snowden story but not his thoughts on Hong Kong's role.

Last week, at a speaking engagement at New York's Cooper Union, Greenwald said Hong Kong provided the right mix of safety and political freedom.

Snowden "wanted to make sure that if the US government detected what he was doing before he had a chance to give us the documents, that he would be in a place where they were very limited", Greenwald said.

"So he found the place that was this perfect calibrated balance between his own security and blocking the United States from doing anything, but [still had] some degree of political freedom. That's how he approached everything - with extremely careful analysis."

Snowden arrived in Hong Kong on May 20 last year from Hawaii. On June 5 the reporters, who had flown to Hong Kong just days earlier, published the first in a series of explosive stories on the NSA's secret collection of web and phone data from its own citizens and those abroad.

On June 9, Snowden revealed himself as the source of the leaks in a 12-minute video filmed at the Mira hotel in Kowloon, stating his reasons for breaching his contract as an employee of the NSA through government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.

The US government charged him with violating the Espionage Act on June 14 and sent an urgent extradition request to justice officials in Hong Kong. But just hours after the sealed indictment detailing the allegations was made public on June 23, and after the US government revoked Snowden's passport, Hong Kong did nothing to stop him from catching a flight to Russia.

Greenwald said Snowden had provided a template for future government whistle-blowers, and he hoped Snowden's actions would inspire more of them.