Yesterday, the New York Times urged the Obama administration to offer Edward Snowden “a plea bargain or some form of clemency.” The paper called the former NSA contractor “a whistle-blower” for his exposure of “the vast scope” of the NSA’s “reach into the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the United States and around the globe.”
Perhaps Snowden is what the Times portrays him to be, a hero of sorts, yet the editors of the paper rushed to judgment. In their editorial they did not even raise the possibility that he passed along vital national security secrets to China. It is likely he did so.
“I have had no contact with the Chinese government,” Snowden wrote in a Q&A on the Guardian website while taking refuge in Hong Kong in June. “I only work with journalists.”
That’s far short of the truth. By the time he wrote those words in the online chat, Snowden, according to one of my sources in Hong Kong, had at least one “high-level contact” with Chinese officials there. Those officials suggested he give an interview to the South China Morning Post, the most prominent English-language newspaper in Hong Kong. This is significant because, as the Post noted, Snowden turned over to the paper documents that contained detailed technical information on the NSA’s methods. Included in these documents were Hong Kong and Chinese IP addresses that the NSA was surveilling. The disclosure of those addresses was not whistle-blowing; that was aiding China.
The Post, my source told me, had sent two reporters to interview Snowden. The paper did not give a byline to one of them, a Chinese national serving as the deputy to Editor Wang Xiangwei, who used to be affiliated with a Communist Party organ in the Mainland. That reporter is suspected to have then supplied Snowden’s documents to Chinese agents. Beijing, it appears, was able to cover its tracks while obtaining information from the so-called whistle-blower.
UPDATE: Wang Xiangwei, the editor of the South China, disputes this version of events, and says that only one Post reporter was present in the newspaper’s interviews with Snowden. He says that the Post did not turn over any documents to authorities from China, Hong Kong, the United States or any other jurisdiction.
Specifically, it appears that agents of China’s Ministry of State Security were in contact with Snowden during his stay in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous part of China. “The Chinese already have everything Snowden had,” said an unnamed official to the Washington Free Beacon days after the leaker had left Hong Kong for Moscow. Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, said that Snowden probably went to Mainland China during his stay in Hong Kong, a suspicion shared by some in that city.
Moreover, evidence suggests that Beijing orchestrated Snowden’s flight from Hong Kong. Albert Ho, one of Snowden’s lawyers, believes Chinese authorities contacted him through an intermediary to pass a message that it was time for Snowden to leave the city. “I have reasons to believe that… those who wanted him to leave represented Beijing authorities,” he was quoted as saying.
We can only speculate as to the motives of the Chinese to frustrate Washington’s attempts to apprehend Snowden, but they did their best to make sure that American officials did not get the opportunity to interrogate Snowden. The last thing they wanted was for the U.S. to learn the extent of their penetration of the NSA and the FBI in Hawaii.
Some in the American intelligence community suspect Snowden was really a “drop box,” receiving information from NSA personnel working for China. In other words, he was used as a courier.
In any event, the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake reported in late June that the FBI was investigating whether Snowden obtained documents “from a leak inside the secret FISA court.” Similarly, Mike Rogers has suggested Snowden probably had an accomplice in the NSA giving him information.
Beijing may also have encouraged Snowden to leave Hawaii. One of my sources indicates that Chinese intelligence, either directly or through FBI personnel working for China, tipped Snowden off that NSA investigators were closing in on him.
At this point, allegations of Snowden’s shadowy involvement with Chinese intelligence in Hawaii remain unconfirmed, but the evidence suggests he lied about his dealings with Chinese officials during his stay in Hong Kong. That tells us he may have been more than just a “whistle-blower.”
Just because he raised critical issues that go to the core of our democracy does not mean Mr. Snowden is a hero. He may also have been a spy.
Correction: a previous version of this article stated that Wang Xiangwei openly sits on a Communist Party organ in mainland China. Mr. Wang says that he resigned from the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference early last year.