Put aside your position, please, on whether or not celebrity whistleblower Edward Snowden is a hero, a traitor or both, and consider this: a scofflaw military dropout spook with privileged access to apparently everything including the president’s email on the run, in possession of who knows what in addition to a big mouth, he surely has more information and capabilities of value than he revealed to the press. And he’s sought refuge, perhaps political asylum, in Hong Kong, which is China.
As much as people who live there prefer not to admit it, Hong Kong is indeed China, especially in matters of national security and diplomacy. China has discretion over how much to involve itself in the affairs of Hong Kong. They generally keep their distance (with exception to some PRC military bases scattered across Hong Kong), but this situation is exotic, and Snowden surely does concern military and diplomatic interests of the Chinese. He may as well be in Beijing, hiking the Great Wall or checking out the Terracotta Warriors. Put yourself in the shoes of the Chinese government and think about it.
We’ve been having a rather difficult time getting along with the Chinese. We believe their government exercises massive coordinated cyber warfare against us, including stealing blueprints to our weapons systems, even our fancy fighters. They did something similar to the Australians. The Chinese, friends with our enemies, enjoy stealing digital secrets from us and other countries, and now they have this man in their lap, a treasure chest of secrets. Maybe I watched Homeland too much, but even if he is a patriot, looking at his Youtube clip, does he strike you like the guy who could resist a few sessions of Chinese water torture to keep quiet? Of course not.
I suspect the only thing protecting him, and therefore us, from being milked of useful classified information and hacking tips by the Chinese for interests that really do threaten us is that he’s very high-profile at the moment. Perhaps the Chinese see more value in diplomatic points to score for not capturing him, maybe being cooperative with us in an extradition, than shaking out more information from him. Or perhaps they’re just waiting, considering their options. Perhaps they’re handling him, perhaps they’ve tapped his phone and computer, perhaps they’ve subscribed to his Youtube channel, perhaps they already took him.
Maybe the Chinese believe Snowden is still doing a good job without their coercion damaging the US and furthering their own interests. How about that?
Even if he makes a dash to Iceland or Ecuador, maybe he made some friends in Hong Kong, maybe the Chinese turned him into a cooperative asset. Maybe he’s not a patriot at all. Maybe he’s impressionable, maybe his allegiance to a country interested in prosecuting him for treason is a bit pliable now. Maybe he packed a few NSA USB sticks with him before skipping town, insurance policies – why wouldn’t he. Maybe he’s unstable mentally. Maybe he created himself some sort of digital back door and continues to have access to the NSA. We really don’t know what he is, knows, intends or has – but he is most certainly a liability in the wind, especially conspicuously making Youtube videos in the Mandarin Oriental while getting high fives from Julian Assange. How can we risk not snatching him or otherwise mitigating the threat he poses immediately?
That more people are calling him a hero rather than a traitor on Twitter isn’t a good enough answer.