by KEN KLIPPENSTEIN
I’ve received a torrent of furious emails in response to my recent piece in which I argue that Hong Kong is unlikely to grant NSA leaker Edward Snowden political asylum; also I argue that Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who corresponded with Snowden, was remiss in publishing Snowden’s leak before he was in a reasonably safe place. These bitter emails took me by surprise because I took for granted that two things are uncontroversial: first, that Hong Kong would be unlikely to grant asylum, and second, that journalists have an ethical obligation to ensure that their publications don’t endanger their sources.
I’ll address the point about Hong Kong first. Perhaps most convincing is an article published in Glenn Greenwald’s own paper, The Guardian. It quotes Human Rights Watch as saying that “There’s little [reason] to believe that the Hong Kong authorities would not co-operate with the CIA in this case.” The article is based on an interview with emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, Peter Bouckaert, who uncovered faxes revealing that Hong Kong cooperated with the CIA in rendering an anti-Gaddafi Islamist to Libya. In Bouckaert’s words, “It’s very clear from the faxes that the Hong Kong authorities at the time co-operated very closely with both the CIA and MI6 in bringing Saadi [the anti-Gaddafi Islamist] back to Libya, where he was later tortured and sentenced to death.” He goes on to assert, “there is no reason to believe that the very close relationship which is visible from these faxes between the intelligence agency in Hong Kong and the CIA has changed in a significant way.”
Then there’s Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, which is arguing that Snowden “should leave the city.” The article includes a widely quoted interview with lawyer Kevin Egan, who deals with extradition cases in Hong Kong. Egan thinks that Snowden should “be getting out of here and heading to a sympathetic jurisdiction as fast as possible”, and that “the attitude of the judiciary here seems to be if Uncle Sam wants you, Uncle Sam will get you.” Business Insider quotes Geoffrey Robertson, “a leading London-based lawyer” who advised Julian Assange during his extradition case, saying Snowden should consider moving out of Hong Kong. Te-Ping Chen, a Wall Street Journal reporter based in Hong Kong, wrote an article titled “Hong Kong Baffled by Snowden’s Hideout”. In the article, Chen quotes Regina Ip, a member of the Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, as saying that “we work very closely with U.S. authorities” and that Snowden’s choice was “really being based on unfortunate ignorance.”
The other issue, Greenwald’s failure to protect his source, seems equally obvious. Like the Hippocratic oath that doctors take, vowing to do no harm to their patients, so too do journalists have an obligation to do no harm to their sources. Greenwald published the leak while Snowden was in a country that would very likely extradite him: he put his source in danger. Whether or not Snowden believes Hong Kong to be safe is irrelevent, because it’s clearly not safe. And it’s not as though Snowden wants to be extradited, in order to make some kind of political point. He mistakenly believes that Hong Kong’s “spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent” will prevent him from being extradited. Besides, why would he have fled the U.S. if he wanted to be brought to court?
Greenwald’s culpability would have been debatable if Hong Kong was Snowden’s only option; but this is not the case. Snowden could’ve fled to Ecuador, which granted Julian Assange asylum. (In fact, Assange is urging Snowden to “go to Latin America”). Bradley Manning, who’s responsible for the largest leak in history, said (in recently unredacted chat logs with a friend), “[Assange] takes source protection uber-seriously…lie to me, he says…he won’t work with you if you reveal too much about yourself.” (It’s worth noting that Manning wasn’t caught because of any sort of technological failure on the part of Wikileaks’ anonymity software, but because the friend I just quoted him chatting with sold him out.) Not only did The Guardian fail to equip its journalists, in this case Greenwald, with knowledge about anonymity software; Greenwald himself didn’t use a homemade video, sent to him by Snowden, with step-by-step directions on how to install such tools.
Some suppose that maybe Greenwald arranged a secret deal with the Chinese government to grant Snowden asylum. However, this too would be reckless, because there’s no way to know that the Chinese government would follow through on their promise; they could just use Snowden as a bargaining chip. At any rate, it’s very unlikely that such a deal would even be struck in the first place, for China and the U.S. economy are very closely integrated. Granting asylum to Snowden would antagonize the U.S., which is by far China’s leading export market. A cursory glance at the Chinese economy shows how harmful the lack of U.S. consumer demand (as a consequence of the recession) has been to China. The mainstream belief that China and the U.S. are bitter rivals is plainly false. Compare this with the sharply adversarial relationship between countries in Latin America and the U.S. (e.g., Hugo Chavez calling Bush II the “devil”; or Bolivia’s expulsion of U.S. aid following John Kerry’s characterization of Latin America as Washington’s “backyard”). There were much better places for Snowden than Hong Kong.
Far more important than the mistakes of an individual like Greenwald is the system in which such mistakes are virtually guaranteed. Most, if not all, large media organizations like The Guardian have either failed to incorporate cryptographic software into their submissions process, or done so shoddily. Forbes tech columnist Andy Greenberg demonstrates this problem extensively in his helpful book, “This Machine Kills Secrets”. Wikileaks represents a safer news model that’s technologically up-to-date. The Guardian has argued that Wikileaks’ anonymity software prevents it from “forging a human relationship [which is] often necessary for both source protection and often human decency.” The same human relationship, incidentally, within which Greenwald failed to dissuade Snowden from fleeing to Hong Kong, and couldn’t bother himself with installing anonymity software.
Ken Klippenstein co-edits The White Rose Reader. He can be reached at Reader246@gmail.com