Skip to main content

Pro-democracy lawmaker and lawyer Albert Ho listens to a question in his office in Hong Kong June 24, 2013. Ho, a lawyer for Edward Snowden, said on Monday the former U.S. spy agency employee was told to flee Hong Kong by a middleman claiming to represent the government of the China-controlled territory, but who was probably acting on behalf of Beijing.BOBBY YIP/Reuters

Edward Snowden is on the run again after spending several weeks in hiding in Hong Kong.

The U.S. is attempting to extradite the admitted leaker of state secrets on espionage charges, but hasn't yet had any success.

Mr. Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, slipped out of Hong Kong and arrived in Russia on Sunday. The cat-and-mouse saga bordered on the absurd on Monday when a plane took off from Moscow to Havana full of journalists – but without Mr. Snowden.

Why can't the U.S. catch Snowden?

The United States formally asked Hong Kong to extradite Mr. Snowden, but the former British colony said U.S. authorities had made a mistake in their arrest request.

Hong Kong's explanation did not go over well with the U.S., which said its request met all the requirements of the extradition treaty between the two countries. U.S. officials said Hong Kong didn't raise any issues about the request during conversations last week, including a phone call between Attorney General Eric Holder and Hong Kong Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen on Wednesday.

Russia doesn't have an extradition treaty with the U.S. However, an American official pressed Russia to "look at all options available to expel Mr. Snowden back to the U.S.," noting the co-operation between the two countries since the Boston marathon bombings.

What's really going on?

Despite the formal explanation, Hong Kong officials also indicated displeasure over Mr. Snowden's revelation that the semi-autonomous Chinese city had been a target of American hacking. The government noted that it asked the U.S. for more information on the issue, suggesting it played some role in the decision.

Some observers believe the move to allow Mr. Snowden to leave Hong Kong was orchestrated by China to avoid a prolonged diplomatic tussle with the U.S. over his extradition. Mr. Snowden also claimed that the U.S. accessed private text messages after hacking into mobile phone companies in China. The U.S. has long complained that it has been a victim of Chinese computer-based attacks.

Hong Kong lawmaker and lawyer Albert Ho, who had represented Mr. Snowden, said an intermediary who claimed to represent the government had relayed a message to Mr. Snowden saying he was free to leave and should do so.

"The entire decision was probably made in Beijing and Beijing decided to act on its best interests," he told reporters. "However, Beijing would not want to be seen on stage because it would affect Sino-U.S. relations. That's why China has somebody acting in the background."

What is Snowden's life like in hiding?

The cramped conditions of staying in the home of a local Hong Kong supporter didn't bother Mr. Snowden, his lawyer told The New York Times – so long as he had access to his computer.

In fact, Mr. Ho said, the one thing that scares him most about the idea of prison is of losing his computer. "If you were to deprive him of his computer, that would be totally intolerable," Mr. Ho said.

Was Snowden hiding in plain sight?

Though Mr. Snowden is going to great lengths to avoid detection (Mr. Ho told The New York Times, for example, that all visitors are asked to hide their cellphones in the refrigerator to prevent eavesdropping), at least a few journalists have had better luck.

Even while fleeing extradition, Mr. Snowden has granted interviews to The Guardian and The South China Morning Post newspapers – essentially hiding in plain sight of officials.

For The Guardian, he even agreed to be filmed on video and then last week participated in a live "Q&A" session with Guardian readers.

"I believe in freedom of expression," he told the Post. "I acted in good faith but it is only right that the public form its own opinion."

Journalists strike out on Aeroflot Flight 180

After word leaked that Mr. Snowden would fly from Moscow to Havana on Monday, journalists who had been searching for him at Sheremetyevo International Airport rushed to book seats on Aeroflot Flight 180. However, he was not on board.

To make matters worse, there are no alcohol sales aboard the nearly 12-hour flight and the reporters must spend three days in Cuba before they can leave because of the country's travel rules.

The WikiLeaks connection

The ongoing NSA drama has led to a strategic alliance between Mr. Snowden and the anti-secrecy activist group WikiLeaks. The arrangement has allowed WikiLeaks – whose founder Julian Assange has been in refuge at the Ecuadorian embassy for over a year – to share in Mr. Snowden's media spotlight, and also given Mr. Snowden access to the expertise and resources that the international organization has gained over the years.

Mr. Assange said that Mr. Snowden had approached the activist group over a week ago for its help, and they have since been providing legal and logistical support. On Sunday, Ecuadorean foreign minister Ricardo Patiño Aroca said the country had received an asylum application from Mr. Snowden.

In an initial interview earlier this month, Mr. Snowden appeared to be critical of Bradley Manning – he argued that he was more discriminate in what documents he handed over, to avoid harm. But in more recent interviews – and after his relationship with WikiLeaks had been forged – appeared to walk back from those statements. WikiLeaks "carefully redacted all of their releases in accordance with a judgment of public interest," he told The Guardian last week.

With reports from The Associated Press

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe