By MsExpat, a journalist and essayist who lives in New York and Hong Kong, and Fellow of The Mighty Corrente Building. Originally published at Corrente.
Anyone who has ever had any dealings with Hong Kong’s scrupulous bureaucracy can’t help but chuckle at today’s South China Morning Post article detailing the problems that Hong Kong’s government had with the United States’ request to detain Edward Snowden. Since the SCMP is behind a paywall here are the juicy parts:
Hong Kong’s justice secretary said on Tuesday the United States had failed to provide crucial information necessary to support its request for the arrest of whistle-blower Edward Snowden before he had left the city.
The missing information included things as basic as a confirmation of Snowden’s full name and passport number, Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung said on Tuesday.
It gets even better. Apparently the US request didn’t even have Snowden’s correct name…
Yuen said the US government had not responded to Hong Kong’s request for a confirmation of Mr Snowden name and passport number even though it had mentioned that he was a US passport holder, Yuen said.
The name used in US government diplomatic documents was Edward James Snowden, the US Department of Justice referred to him as Edward J Snowden, and Hong Kong’s Immigration Department had him recorded as Edward Joseph Snowden, Yuen said.
“I couldn’t say the three names were consistent, so we needed further clarification. Otherwise, there would have been legal problems with a provisional arrest warrant,” Yuen said.
There were, as well, more substantial problems with the US document:
The US also failed to explain to Hong Kong authorities how two of the three charges the US mentioned in its arrest request fell within the scope of a US-Hong Kong rendition of fugitive offenders agreement signed in 1996.
The Hong Kong government on June 15 received the US request for the provisional arrest of Snowden on three charges, namely unauthorised disclosure of national defence information, unauthorised disclosure of intelligence and stealing state property.
Yuen said the US had failed to tell Hong Kong authorities which part of the agreement covered the first two charges.
He also said documents from the US made no mention of what evidence they had against Snowden, a requirement for Hong Kong courts to move ahead with a provisional arrest.
Note to Eric Holder: Don’t even think of trying to get anything past Hong Kong government officials without making sure you’ve dotted all your i’s and crossed your t’s. This is not Hong Kong dragging its feet or being difficult. This is merely how we roll in Hong Kong, the love child of China and Great Britain, two of the world’s greatest bureaucracies. Oh, and around here politeness and prompt response always beats haste and arrogance. You are welcome.
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Lambert here: “Edward James Snowden” vs. “Edward J Snowden” vs. “Edward Joseph Snowden” is an example of “dirty data” (see Durusau at NC here and here). The missing passport number, and the possible Interpol #FAIL, could also be accounted for by “dirty data,” even if Snowden deployed his own chaff (“Edward John Snowden,” and “Edward Jack Snowden,” respectively, perhaps). This is strongly reminiscent of the IT systems for MERS, LPS, the servicers, which weren’t dirty in patches, but all the way through, and were also run for executives notorious for haste, arrogance, and lack of accountability (although, to be fair, only one executive was actually indicted). Perhaps we should be playing the data equivalent of “produce the note” more often.
Yves here. There’s another layer I believe may have been operating in this contretemps. Various reports of how upset American officials were about Snowden exiting take the tone, “We were working with the HK officials, they didn’t tell us anything was wrong.” Even if that was true, look at the underlying assumption: the US and the HK government agreed Snowden was extradition material, it was just a matter of formalities to get him back to the US. It’s almost as if they assumed there was an agreement in principle and any details could be worked out or fudged as appropriate. This is basically a dealmaking view of the world: the important people will sort matters out. By contrast, the HK bureaucratic rigidity looks to be much closer to how Americans think laws work: rules are rules, and they are applied strictly and impartially (mind you, that is not to say the bureaucratic approach didn’t also serve HK’s political needs).
And on top of the immediate document snafu, there was likely a bigger defect in the American approach. From the Guardian’s live blog:
In a very rare instance of agreement, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz – a reckless critic of the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald and advocate of jailing journalists – also thinks the Obama administration blew it by bringing charges under the Espionage Act, which theoretically gave Hong Kong a way to invoke the political exception to any extradition request:
“It’s really dumb to charge him with what might be considered to be a political offense when they’re trying to extradite him,” Dershowitz told Newsmax. “…If they had just indicted him for theft and conversion of property — an ordinary crime — the chances of getting him extradited would have increased dramatically… But at this point they have really shot themselves in the foot.”
It’s unclear whether Hong Kong ever saw a possibility of extraditing Snowden or would have gotten Chinese approval to do so.