Are the NSA leaks a form of Chinese espionage?

Over the next few weeks, we’ll all be trying to make sense of the revelations about the NSA’s surveillance programs, and the motives of at least one man apparently behind them.  Edward Snowden unveiled himself as the source to the Washington Post and the Guardian in the UK, but Snowden wasn’t a seasoned intelligence agent or analyst, but a 29-year-old IT expert without any other advanced education.  His choice of asylum in the wake of the leaks — Hong Kong — as well as Snowden’s explanation of it raised even more eyebrows.  CNN interviewed intelligence expert Bob Baer, who pointed out all of the flaws in Snowden’s argument about the supposedly deep commitment to free speech in China (via Legal Insurrection):

“Hong Kong is controlled by Chinese intelligence,” Baer said. “It’s not an independent part of China at all. I’ve talked to a bunch of people in Washington today, in official positions, and they are looking at this as a potential Chinese espionage case.”

“On the face of it, it looks like it is under some sort of Chinese control, especially with the president meeting the premier today,” Baer said. “You have to ask what’s going on. China is not a friendly country and every aspect of that country is controlled. So why Hong Kong? Why didn’t he go to Sweden? Or, if he really wanted to make a statement, he should have done it on Capitol Hill.”

According to Glenn Greenwald, Snowden said he chose Hong Kong because “‘they have a spirited commitment to free speech and the right of political dissent,’ and because he believed that it was one of the few places in the world that both could and would resist the dictates of the US government.”

That’s simply absurd.  China’s regime of surveillance on Internet activity far exceeds that of the US — and it’s also helpful to remember that some of these same companies under fire for cooperating with the NSA here were also cooperative with Beijing on their surveillance programs.  There may be places where Snowden might find asylum where the government actually does resist that kind of surveillance — Snowden mentioned Iceland, for instance — but Hong Kong isn’t one of those places, and China is far worse than the US.

On the other hand, it’s also one place where the CIA probably can’t get to Snowden:

“We’ll never get him in China,” Baer said. “They’re not about to send him to the United States and the CIA is not going to render him, as he said in the tape, is not going to try to grab him there.”

“It almost seems to me that this was a pointed affront to the United States on the day the president is meeting the Chinese leader,” Baer said, “telling us, listen, quit complaining about espionage and getting on the internet and our hacking. You are doing the same thing.”

Of all the oddities in this story, the China connection is the oddest.  It prompts questions about how involved China has been in forcing this leak, although that would raise other questions, such as what benefit China might get from it.  The US, after all, tracks terrorists that might threaten China, such as the Uighers, a few of whom had been in Guantanamo.  However, Beijing might also be worried that the NSA could penetrate its hacking attempts or use this platform for returning cyber-warfare attacks, which was one of the big issues in the Obama-Xi meeting this week.  That’s a pretty large coincidence, too.