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Why Edward Snowden is spilling U.S. secrets to China
The NSA leaker is talking to the Chinese press, and he wants China to know that the U.S. hacks its servers, too
 
The front page of South China Morning Post is displayed at a news stand in Hong Kong on June 13.
The front page of South China Morning Post is displayed at a news stand in Hong Kong on June 13. AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Edward Snowden says he became so concerned about the National Security Agency's widespread collection of U.S. citizens' data, he decided to leak top secret U.S. documents to sympathetic journalists. So on May 20, recounts The Guardian, the NSA IT contractor boarded a plane for Hong Kong with a suitcase, a Rubik's Cube, one book, and four laptops "that enabled him to gain access to some of the U.S. government's most highly-classified secrets."

On the night of June 9, The Guardian posted a video of Snowden in his Hong Kong hotel room, introducing himself to the world as the NSA leaker and explaining why he gave up everything to blow the whistle. By noon the next day, he had checked out of his hotel room and disappeared — until Wednesday, when Snowden gave an interview to Hong Kong's English-language South China Morning Post.

Much of the interview involved Snowden talking about his plans — he says he'll stay in Hong Kong and fight extradition to the U.S. — and saying nice things about the quasi-independent Chinese territory. But the SCMP says Snowden also let the paper view some "unverified documents" showing that "the NSA had been hacking computers in Hong Kong and on the mainland since 2009."

The documents didn't show any hacking of military targets, Snowden says, but the NSA did reportedly target Hong Kong's Chinese University, businesses, public officials, and students, plus servers on mainland China. "We hack network backbones — like huge internet routers, basically — that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one," Snowden tells the SCMP.

Patrick Chovanek, a financial strategist who once taught economics at a Beijing university, asks the obvious question:

Snowden's answer, relayed through the South China Morning Post, is that he wants to expose "the hypocrisy of the U.S. government when it claims that it does not target civilian infrastructure, unlike its adversaries." Snowden continues: "The reality is that I have acted at great personal risk to help the public of the world, regardless of whether that public is American, European, or Asian."

The Washington Post's Jia Lynn Yang has another theory. Noting that China has been accusing the U.S. of cyber attacks to counter accusations that it is engaging in widespread cyber-espionage of U.S. companies and government agencies, Yang suggests:

By speaking with Hong Kong's oldest English-language newspaper, Snowden seemed to be directly addressing the city he has chosen as his safe harbor. And by disclosing that he possesses documents that he says describe U.S. hacking against China, he appeared to be trying to win support from the Chinese government. [Washington Post]

Law blogger Ann Althouse notes that "The Guardian published its first story using Snowden's leaks as President Obama was meeting with the President of China." Add in this hacking claim, she says, we now "have some data — enough dots to connect?"

Freelance journalist Joshua Foust has a simpler explanation:

China already knows we hack into its servers — as does anybody "with a pulse and a functioning brain," says Bryan Preston at Pajamas Media. So Snowden "must be trolling the NSA along with the media and the rest of the world, because while damaging to disclose, it is not news."

I'm sure the U.S. hacks not only China, but probably Russia, Iran, North Korea, and probably dozens of other governments, friendly and otherwise. And they hack us. Cyberspace has been battle space for decades now. Most Americans already suspected or know this, and are fine with it.... I suspect that [Snowden] isn't actually trying to curry favor with the Chinese government, though. He may be signaling that he knows what they've been doing too, or he may be playing some other game. [PJ Media]

This isn't a game for Snowden, says David Weigel at Slate. With each leak, it's becoming clear that "Snowden's problem is larger than domestic spycraft. It's a problem with spycraft, period." His decision to shift from protecting the civil liberties of Americans to exposing America's likely justifiable cyberwar poses a real test for all the "libertarian-minded people grateful that Snowden exposed the NSA's PRISM program."

If American spy agencies are running their own cyberwar, that's... not really surprising. It's not especially scary, either, not in the way that domestic spying is scary. You might not want military gear or tactics to make their way to the Denver police department, but you probably don't mind military gear and tactics on carriers in the South China Sea. [Slate]

Whatever Snowden's intentions for telling Chinese media about America's hacking habits, China has decided to take umbrage. "The massive U.S. global surveillance program revealed by a former CIA whistle-blower in Hong Kong is certain to stain Washington's overseas image and test developing Sino-U.S. ties," which are "constantly soured on cybersecurity," says the state-run China Daily newspaper. Li Haidong, an American studies researcher at China Foreign Affairs University, rubs salt in the NSA's wounds:

For months, Washington has been accusing China of cyber-espionage, but it turns out that the biggest threat to the pursuit of individual freedom and privacy in the U.S. is the unbridled power of the government. [China Daily]

David Zweig, a China expert at Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology, tells The New York Times that whatever secrets Snowden is carrying on his laptops probably aren't enough to convince China to risk damaging U.S. relations. But if China wants to embarrass the U.S. and justify its own security apparatus, it doesn't really have to do anything but sit back and let Snowden keep on talking, Li Siling, a social media expert at the China Executive Leadership Academy, tells the Times: "They will say the U.S. is supposed to be the most free country in the world, but they still monitor the internet and tap every phone."

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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