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What Hong Kong's Snowden decision tells us

Edward Snowden BT Crop.jpg

FILE -- This photo provided by The Guardian Newspaper in London shows Edward Snowden, who worked as a contract employee at the National Security Agency, in Hong Kong on June 9, 2013.AP Photo/The Guardian

Hong Kong’s decision to let NSA-secrets-leaker Edward Snowden slip away is lamentable but also very telling.  It is partially the result of failed U.S. leadership along with a disinclination to get involved in the Obama administration’s unserious handling of secrets.

Cooperation with Washington is crucial for the former British colony and what is essentially the only part of China that has the rule of law.  Hong Kong is a financial and media hub, and also has one of the world’s busiest container ports.  Preserving the security of such an open society requires working with authorities outside of the city of 7 million, which is now part of China but still retains its colonial legal and political system.

Washington and Hong Kong have had a real partnership on crime and security—at least up to now. 

Hong Kong's decision speaks volumes about the Obama administration’s lack of real power in the world and the perception that the U.S. is turning inward.

The FBI has its own legal attaché at the American consulate in Hong Kong and a number of other anti-crime agencies keep staff there. Both governments benefit from this cooperation, which ranges from protecting intellectual property to stopping terrorists.

Many Hong Kongers also realize that the United States is the only county that could seriously protest and raise the political cost of any infringement by Beijing of Hong Kong’s rights.  

The British government, like most others, cares more about good relations with Beijing than the fate of the people it governed for 156 years until 1997.  

Today, only U.S. would plausibly speak up for freedoms that exist in Hong Kong, although the Snowden incident certainly won’t slow the steady deterioration of Washington’s interest in Hong Kong’s liberty.

The Hong Kong government’s press release about Snowden didn’t just contain bad news for Washington; it was scornful.  The statement made the almost certainly mendacious claim that the request to apprehend Snowden didn’t meet “relevant legal conditions.” It also parroted Snowden’s comments about U.S. hacking in Hong Kong, for which he has presented no evidence.

It’s possible that the Hong Kong government did not calculate fully how much damage its decision will do to its relationship with Washington and its broader image. While the U.S. won’t cease cooperation, the mood between officials of the two governments will become chillier and less productive.

So why did Hong Kong decide to do this? While Snowden had a popular following in the city, popularity matters relatively little to a government that isn’t really democratic.  And the central government in Beijing probably would not have objected to Hong Kong extraditing Snowden to America. China’s spymasters know that Snowden is useless as an asset, having already divulged what he knew.

Hong Kong probably thought letting Snowden slip out to Moscow and points west was a relatively easy way to get rid of a hot potato. 

The most interesting part of this calculation is what it says about respect for the United States.  

Clearly, Hong Kong calculated there would be no real price to telling Washington to take a hike. This speaks volumes about the Obama administration’s lack of real power in the world and the perception that the U.S. is turning inward amid what President Obama likes to call “nation building right here at home,” save for the occasional drone strike.

The Hong Kong government probably also saw the Obama administration as a collection of Keystone Cops when it comes to protecting information and prosecuting leakers. Why join up voluntarily?

For example, media reports indicate Snowden is now traveling with Sarah Harrison, who works for WikiLeaks, the anti-American organization that traffics in stolen information.  

The Obama administration could have put the organization out of business by indicting its members after they processed and released tens of thousands of stolen U.S. diplomatic cables and other national security information, putting the careers and even lives of thousands of sources at risk.

But Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, waited five months after the first WikiLeaks tranche of stolen information was released and then finally said: “I authorized just last week a number of things to be done so that we can, hopefully, get to the bottom of this and hold people accountable as they should be.”  

That was two and half years ago.  Since then, the administration has done nothing serious to WikiLeaks.

Obama administration sloppiness with national security information is also why the doctor who helped us identify Usama bin Laden is rotting in a Pakistani jail.  

Other White House leaks revealed Washington’s role in the Stuxnet computer virus, which temporarily sabotaged the Iranian nuclear weapons program.  

No one paid a price for those leaks, although the Obama Justice Department did target Fox News reporter James Rosen because he was told of a classified report that discredited the administration’s North Korea policy.

Enter Snowden and Hong Kong into this picture. Is it that surprising that Hong Kong took a look at a weak president, seemingly committed to American withdrawal from the world, and an administration that only cares about protecting secrets when it’s useful for domestic political purposes, and then decided to flip Washington the bird?

Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-09.  He is author of the new book, “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War” (Potomac Books).