June 25, 2013

U.S. said to explore possible Chinese role in Snowden leaks

By John Walcott / Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating whether Edward Snowden's leaks may be a Chinese intelligence operation or whether China might have used his concerns about U.S. surveillance practices to exploit him, according to four American officials.

The officials emphasized there's no hard evidence yet that Snowden was a Chinese agent or that China helped plan his flights to Hong Kong and then to Moscow, directly or through a witting or unwitting intermediary. Rather, they are duty-bound to probe such a worst-case scenario for the United States, said the officials, who are familiar with the case and asked not to be identified to discuss classified intelligence.

President Barack Obama said the U.S. is working with other nations to gain custody of Snowden on espionage charges, as administration officials chastised China for letting him leave Hong Kong for Moscow and pressed Russia to turn him over.

Any suggestion that Snowden worked with China was "complete nonsense and extremely irresponsible," China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a briefing Tuesday. Asked if Snowden's case would derail Chinese-U.S. ties, Hua said the two countries have "always maintained close dialogue and contact."

Snowden, the former government contractor who disclosed top-secret National Security Agency programs that collect phone and Internet data, intended to seek safe passage through Russia and "other states" to Ecuador, Julian Assange, founder of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, told reporters Monday. He declined to name Snowden's present location.

Russian President Vladimir Putin now has a choice to make, said one of the U.S. officials.

The Russian leader could return Snowden — perhaps only after Putin, a former KGB officer, gives his former intelligence colleagues time to question him — and defuse one dispute between the two countries. That would come at the risk of discouraging other would-be leakers or defectors from cooperating with Russia, the U.S. officials said.

The involvement of China and Russia raises questions about their relationship with Snowden and what information he may provide them, according to Jane Harman, president of the Wilson Center, a Washington-based policy research group.

"Clearly, he now is a pawn in a big-power game, and I think that game is way too big for him," Harman, a former Democratic congresswoman from California who served on the House intelligence committee, said in an interview.

While U.S. counterintelligence investigations are mandatory in all cases in which top-secret information is made public without authorization, the U.S. officials said, their suspicions about Snowden began to take root when he fled to Hong Kong, which has a 1997 extradition treaty with the U.S. but is under the political control of China.

They grew deeper still when Snowden spoke publicly only about American cyber-attacks on China and Hong Kong even though he had access to information on espionage against other nations. In newly disclosed comments, Snowden, who previously worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, also said he sought out his most recent job with government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton in order to get more access to secrets.

"My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked," Snowden told the South China Morning Post in a report dated Tuesday that the newspaper said was based on a June 12 interview. "That is why I accepted that position about three months ago."

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