How Edward Snowden escaped from Hong Kong

In a long article that appeared in the Canadian National Post, two Hong Kong lawyers Robert Tibbo and Jonathan Man describe how they hid Snowden from the Hong Kong and US authorities and the media while they devised ways to get him to safety. This story has not been told until now and it is timed to coincide with the release of the Oliver Stone film Snowden that premiered yesterday at the Toronto International Film Festival and goes into general release on Thursday, September 15.

Here’s the trailer.

This review says that it is an excellent film, the best work that Stone has done in over twenty years.

But Stone’s exile in the desert of overheated irrelevance has now ended. “Snowden” isn’t just the director’s most exciting work since “Nixon” (1995) — it’s the most important and galvanizing political drama by an American filmmaker in years.

“Snowden” has a perilously unfolding sense of revelation. The film’s moral and logistical brilliance is that what Edward — and the audience — learns, bit by bit, is not that there’s a cabal of sinister bad guys sitting in a room somewhere, plotting how to take away your privacy. The data-gathering has evolved organically, and maybe inevitably, with the technology. And yet it’s creepy (to put it mildly). At home, Edward puts a piece of tape over his webcam, because he realizes that someone could be looking at him (or Lindsay). He’s not paranoid; he’s just enlightened. The dialogue in “Snowden” is often dense with technical jargon, but instead of distancing us, the authenticity of the language reels us in. There’s something dramatic in how all the talk is about shrouding things.

The spies behind the computer curtain can touch the whole world, but the more they look at it, the more disconnected from its reality they become. “Snowden” peels this cyber-voyeuristic onion, layer by layer, until we’re watching, on a live feed, gruesome drone attacks in the Middle East, where the targets have been identified by their cell phones. A bomb goes off — a moving car gets vaporized — and if there’s collateral damage (like, say, the target’s family), so be it. No one in the control room cares, because the ideology at hand (eliminate the terrorists) has been heightened with a death-by-joystick ease that comes from staring at people through technology all day long, until they become at once right there and totally unreal. It’s the sociopathology of screens.

The National Post article describes the extraordinary precautions that Snowden and his lawyers took to avoid capture.

It was clear that fighting for asylum in Hong Kong was fraught with too much uncertainty. “It was Ed’s decision to leave,” Tibbo said. But Snowden also knew he needed assistance elsewhere. He instructed his lawyers to reach out to Julian Assange and the Wikileaks network whose global group is committed to disclosing government secrets.

Sarah Harrison, a British Wikileaks staffer and close confidante of Assange, flew to Hong Kong from Australia and consulted with Snowden’s lawyers. She purchased more than a dozen airline tickets to different destinations, including Iceland, Cuba and India, to confuse U.S., Chinese and Hong Kong officials monitoring the airport, despite having received “neutral to a green-light” from the city-state’s government allowing Snowden to leave unhindered. Meanwhile, Assange, who was in self-exile at the Ecuadorean embassy in London, worked his connections with South American governments to obtain diplomatic protection for the young American.

On June 23, Tibbo drove Snowden and Harrison to Hong Kong International Airport. During that journey, Snowden, who had just met his travelling companion from Wikileaks for the first time, seemed unusually nervous. The pair posed as a young couple headed on a vacation. Leaving little to chance, Man simultaneously bought a ticket to Shanghai to get access to the boarding gates in the event Snowden encountered problems before boarding the plane. Tibbo waited at the Immigration department at the airport. Unlike the early days, this escape was meticulously planned.

“We tried our best to avoid surveillance,” Man recalled. “Looking back, we must have been crazy. We understood the danger, but we didn’t think much about it. Luckily, it turned out successfully.”

Once the Aeroflot flight to Moscow had exited Chinese airspace, the Hong Kong government announced Snowden had left the country. The U.S. government was livid. Predictably, Snowden’s departure kicked off a global pursuit and his passport was finally revoked.

So low has the reputation of the US and president Obama become that Tibbo and Snowden feared being hit by a US drone strike in Hong Kong. The US is considered such a rogue power that nothing is put past them.

The article also goes into much more detail about the three refugee asylum-seeking families who hid Snowden in their tiny cramped apartments in the poorest sections of the city, that I wrote about a few days ago.

Summoned by his immigration lawyer in the late evening of June 10, 2013, Ajith (last names of the refugees in this story have been withheld), a former soldier in the Sri Lankan military, was told the unidentified man was “famous” and needed “protection.” Little else was revealed except that he would be responsible for covertly moving the American around at a moment’s notice.

“I was very happy to help him,” Ajith recalled during a recent interview with the National Post in his small windowless room in Kennedy Town, on the western tip of Hong Kong Island. “This famous person was a refugee too, same as me.”

Perhaps more importantly, added Jonathan Man, another Snowden lawyer who worked alongside Tibbo: “We knew (the asylum seekers) because we had helped them on their (immigration cases). And we knew they would not betray us.”

“Imagine the world’s most wanted dissident brought to your door. Would you open it? They didn’t even hesitate, and I’ll always be grateful for that,” Snowden said in an exclusive encrypted text to the Post.

The lives of the refugee families who concealed Snowden without question — and without much choice — may be forever changed now that their roles in helping him elude law enforcement will become public in the upcoming movie.

“I think these are very brave, selfless people who did something extraordinary at a very difficult time and at enormous personal risk,” said Laura Poitras, a journalist and Oscar-winning documentary maker who filmed Snowden inside his Hong Kong hotel room for eight days.

Inside Supun’s cramped two-and-a-half-room living space, a threadbare cotton sheet covers a small filthy window where an air conditioner wheezes incessantly. Supun, 32, Nadeeka, 33, and their now-four-year-old daughter and newborn son Dinath sleep on a mattress that barely fits in a room no bigger than a large janitor’s closet. A stuffed Minnie Mouse toy rests against a pillow and piles of bags containing their meagre belongings are jammed into a corner.

In the adjacent room where we sit on three plastic red stools are a small refrigerator, tattered green upholstered chair and ancient Dell desktop computer. A nearby bathroom doubles as the kitchen, with pots and pans stacked on top and underneath the sink and toilet.

This is the kind of place where Snowden hid from the world during the first days he went underground. “You’re a good man to take care of me,” Supun said Snowden told him. When they asked what the stranger liked to eat, he replied, burgers and spaghetti. Armed with the money Tibbo gave him, Supun went to buy food while Nadeeka prepared the only bed in the house for their unexpected guest.

For the vulnerable people back in Hong Kong who helped him escape to safety, the danger is potentially more palpable. According to Tibbo, Snowden sent them each US$1,000 when he realized he may have unwittingly put them at risk by revealing their role for the Hollywood movie.

“They had a hundred chances to betray me while I was amongst them, and no one could have blamed them, given their precarious situations. But they never did,” Snowden said. “If not for their compassion, my story could have ended differently. They taught me no matter who you are, no matter what you have, sometimes a little courage can change the course of history.”

The National Post article has some video clips as well. I am really looking forward to seeing the film as soon as it comes to a local theater next week.


  1. says

    Well, they did ground the president of Bolivia’s airplane, because they thought Snowden might be on it. The US police state literally Flipped Its Shit over Snowden.

    Snowden showed that the king has no pants and is pretty stupid but is a lying sneak.

  2. Jake Harban says

    And yet somehow, nobody cares.

    Panicked surrender of basic privacy rights in the hope of obtaining “protection” from phantom threats I can sort of understand, but the dedicated apathy I’ve seen from half the people on FtB is just baffling.

  3. Crimson Clupeidae says

    Jake Harban @ 2. It’s much like the issue with the Dakota Access Pipeline. Most people think (incorrectly, in my view) that this erosion of civil liberties won’t affect them. For most, they are probably correct, but that thinking leads to further erosion until it does affect them, at which point it’s much too late to do anything about it.

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