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How Snowden Escaped

Sep 8, 2016
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EXCLUSIVE: The never-been-told story of those two pivotal weeks when the most wanted man in the world was hidden in the depths of a Hong Kong slum.
By Theresa Tedesco
HONG KONG — The tall, lanky American dressed in all black looked familiar. But Ajith, a 44-year-old Sri Lankan refugee seeking asylum in Hong Kong figured the nervous-looking man with the red-rimmed eyes fidgeting in the darkness outside the United Nations building in the Tsim Sha Tsui district of Kowloon was a U.S. army dodger.
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.”
Earlier that day, that “famous” 29-year-old walked out of the five-star luxury Hotel Mira in Kowloon and sparked an intensive global manhunt not seen since the search for al-Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001, bombings.
Edward Snowden, a former U.S. intelligence contractor, became the most wanted fugitive in the world after leaking a cache of classified documents to the media detailing extensive cyber spying networks by the U.S. government on its own citizens and governments around the world.
To escape the long arm of American justice, the man responsible for the largest national security breach in U.S. history retained a Canadian lawyer in Hong Kong who hatched a plan that included a visit to the UN sub-office where the North Carolina native applied for refugee status to avoid extradition to the U.S.
Fearing the media would surround and follow Snowden — making it easier for the Hong Kong authorities to arrest the one-time Central Intelligence Agency analyst on behalf of the U.S. — his lawyers made him virtually disappear for two weeks from June 10 to June 23, 2013, before he emerged on an Aeroflot airplane bound for Moscow, where he remains stranded today in self-imposed exile.
“That morning, I had minutes to figure out how to get him to the UN, away from the media, and out of harm’s way with the weight of the U.S. government bearing down on him. I did what I had to do, and could do, to help him,” Robert Tibbo, the whistleblower’s lead lawyer in Hong Kong told the Post in a wide-ranging interview, the first detailing the chaotic days of Snowden’s escape three years ago. “They wanted the data and they wanted to shut him down. Our greatest fear was that Ed would be found.”
The covert scheme to dodge U.S. attempts to arrest Snowden could have been ripped from the pages of a spy thriller.
The fugitive was disguised in a dark hat and glasses and transported by car at night by two lawyers to safe houses on the crowded and impoverished fringes of Hong Kong. Snowden hunkered down in small, cluttered, dingy rooms where as many as four people shared less than 150 square feet.
Batteries were removed from cellphones when they gathered, burner phones were used to place calls, SIM cards were exchanged and sophisticated computer encryption was used to communicate when face-to-face meetings were not possible. Snowden rarely ventured out, and only at night where he could easily be lost among the many other asylum seekers.
“Nobody would dream that a man of such high profile would be placed among the most reviled people in Hong Kong,” recalled Tibbo, a Canadian-born and educated barrister who has practiced law for 15 years. “We put him in a place where no one would look.”
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.”
Until now, details of how Snowden avoided detection, and where and who sheltered him have been closely guarded secrets known only by the famed whistleblower and his Hong Kong-based lawyers.
Since then, he has become a controversial figure: a traitor to U.S. lawmakers and many in the intelligence community, but a pop-culture icon to legions of anti-establishment followers. Inevitably, Hollywood has entered the fray with a biopic of his life, directed by Oliver Stone and produced with Snowden’s cooperation; the film is scheduled for a world premiere on September 9 at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“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.
Late on the evening of June 10, 2013, a cellphone rang in one of the dozens of decrepit, filthy apartment complexes that line the streets in the Lai Chi Kok area of Kowloon. Supun, a 32-year-old native of Colombo, Sri Lanka, who has languished in Hong Kong’s refugee system since 2005, took a call in a cramped 150-square-foot apartment he shared with his partner Nadeeka and one-year-old daughter Suwasistiki.
The voice on the other end of the phone was his immigration lawyer Robert Tibbo, asking to meet outside on the crowded sidewalk. “I was scared to ask questions,” Supun said. “I told Nadeeka, ‘I don’t know why he’s coming.’ I thought it had to with my [asylum] case.”
Reflexively, he brought his baby daughter outside with him. There, he was met by Tibbo, Jonathan Man and Edward Snowden. Asked if he recognized the American, Supun lied and said yes. “I was very scared,” he said, and thought Snowden was in the military because of his short haircut.
Supun recalled the three men whispering amongst themselves and overheard them talking about someone being followed. “They told me he was staying with me. Feed him and don’t talk to nobody about him,” he said. Confused, he nonetheless obliged.
Supun hid Edward Snowden in the cramped 150-square-foot apartment that he shares with his partner and daughter. (Jayne Russell for National Post)

Supun hid Edward Snowden in the cramped 150-square-foot apartment that he shares with his partner and daughter. (Jayne Russell for National Post)

Supun wasn’t told that Snowden had earlier that day escaped his hotel room where he had been holed up with journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald for eight days leaking classified documents he’d stolen from the National Security Agency’s Threat Operations Centre in Hawaii where he worked as an outside contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. The media’s explosive reporting captivated the world and infuriated and embarrassed the U.S. government.
The intensely shy Snowden finally unmasked himself as the source of the classified disclosures on the Guardian’s website on June 9. “He was scared for his life. He was fully aware that his life was at risk,” Tibbo said. “Ed was clear in his mind about making the disclosures, but Ed’s a human being. No matter that he understood intellectually what he did, it was only after he made the disclosures that thousands of tons of realizations weighed heavily on his emotional and physical state. He had the weight of the world on his shoulders and he had to move very quickly.”
A high-stakes plan to keep Snowden safe was set in motion that began when he was escorted from the hotel to the UN building where Tibbo was waiting. Because Snowden’s visa was still valid, he couldn’t be sure that the Hong Kong government would protect him.
However, the UN would with a refugee claim and filing one bought time and tied the hands of Hong Kong authorities — which answer to China’s central government in Beijing — from extraditing him at the U.S.’s request. As an asylum seeker, though, Snowden would also have been subject to harsh refugee rules and faced the possibility of being incarcerated while his application was processed, which could have taken decades.
Supun and Nadeeka let Edward Snowden hide in their home in Lai Chi Kok. (Jayne Russell for National Post)

Supun and Nadeeka let Edward Snowden hide in their home in Lai Chi Kok. (Jayne Russell for National Post)

At the same time, any thoughts that Snowden could remain in Hong Kong to fight extradition through local courts were quickly banished when it became clear that his freedom — and his access to computers — would have been curtailed.
“I wasn’t familiar with Hong Kong’s asylum policies,” Snowden said in his text to the Post. “My plan was just to return this information to the public, not to take care of myself, which I considered impossible. This can be seen in my lack of an after-action plan.”
Still, in the flurry of activity on that first day, and in the absence of a clear plan, filing with the UN was a necessary first step. From there, Snowden’s lawyers knew they had to embed him somewhere safe until they hammered out an exit strategy, which is why they arrived at Supun’s door in a grimy building with cracked walls and chipped green tiles on the stairs.
Children’s clothes blow in the dirty air hanging over barbed wire. The squalor is visible; open garbage rots in stairwells and in open pits that were once courtyards. The stench, aided by the unbearable heat and humidity, is overpowering.
These housing estates, where Vietnamese, Indonesian, Filipino, African and Sri Lankan refugees live with inadequate resources from the government through International Social Services (ISS), are not just places where dreams come to die; it’s where hope is decimated.
According to government statistics, Hong Kong has only accepted 52 refugees out of tens of thousands since 1992, an acceptance rate of about 0.05 per cent. Currently, there are 12,000 asylum seekers registered with the government, but there are several thousand more unregistered.
“The Hong Kong government hates poor people — there are 1.5 million of its own and the refugees, who are at the bottom of the pile,” said Cosmo Beatson, founder and executive director of Vision First, an independent NGO that advocates for refugees in the city-state founded in 2009.
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.
The next day, Supun was dispatched to buy the South China Morning Post, an English-language newspaper he admitted he never reads. It wasn’t until he brought the paper home that he and Nadeeka saw the giant front-page photo of the pale young man in their bed. “We were very, very surprised that this famous person was in our house,” Nadeeka said. “We can’t believe he’s here in our house.”
The tiny living space soon became overcrowded, especially since during his stay, Snowden “stayed in the room all the time,” Nadeeka said. She had to force him to come out to shower so that she could clean the room. Nadeeka, who fled Sri Lanka in 2007 after years of systemic rape and subsequent hospitalization according to her refugee claim, also worried about Snowden, “because I knew he was living a dangerous life.”
Once Snowden confirmed his identity, he ordered his host to unplug the old Dell computer because he was worried about it being traced. He also asked Supun to purchase specialized software at a local computer shop that would have allowed Snowden to communicate through sophisticated encryption. Everything was paid in cash so there would be no trace.
“He was in shock for the first three days,” Tibbo recalled of his famous client. “He was a zombie, like he’d just walked out of a car crash.”
Snowden saw it differently. “I was in a mission-focused state of mind at that point,” he said. “I wasn’t bothered by the idea of rough living, but I was worried about accidentally dragging people down with me.”
Snowden’s stay with Supun and Nadeeka was without incident. He ate mostly McDonald’s food and loved sweets, especially cake. His legal team limited their presence at the tiny apartment, but dispatched interns to deliver cakes and sweets embedded with USBs as a way to communicate with him.
After almost a week, police suddenly began patrolling Supun’s neighbourhood for no apparent reason. During Snowden’s stay there, the U.S. government filed sealed criminal charges against Snowden on June 14, and requested Hong Kong authorities detain him the following day under an extradition treaty between the two countries, as a prelude to a formal application. Meanwhile, Snowden’s passport and visa to visit Hong Kong remained valid as long as the seal remained in place, but his legal team feared the authorities were closing in.
“I still remember the feeling in my stomach as I’d hear sirens screaming toward the building, I’d pray like hell that they were for something else as I raced to disable any equipment that might be transmitting, getting ready to move,” Snowden said.
Once darkness fell, the fugitive hugged Nadeeka, shook hands with Supun and gave them US$200 for their hospitality before he was clandestinely shuttled off to another secret location.
“In the early days, I understood it was a serious case that must be handled with care, but as the days wore on, I came to understand how dangerous the matter was becoming,” Tibbo’s associate Man said.
Sham Shui Po is among the poorest of Hong Kong’s 18 districts. As the birthplace of the city-state’s first public housing project, it was once the location of a POW camp for British, Canadian and Indian soldiers during the Second World War. In the 1970s and 1980s, the area was used to house Vietnamese refugees. Today, it is home mainly to the poorest new immigrants, especially from mainland China, and many of the refugees seeking asylum.
Snowden was taken to a cramped one-bedroom apartment in Sham Shui Po where Vanessa, a Filipino asylum claimant, lived with her mother and one-year-old daughter Keana. Again, it was late in the evening when Tibbo, Man and a stranger showed up at the 46-year-old’s door.
“I had no idea who [Snowden] was,” she said. “My lawyer Robert Tibbo told me this man needed help. So I let them come into my house. They talked and I gave them privacy. Then he [Tibbo] told me he wanted him to stay with me. They didn’t explain anything; just that he needed help, safety and do not talk to anyone.”
Sitting in a tiny two-room apartment near North Point on Hong Kong Island where she moved last year, Vanessa described Snowden that night as “very, very upset” and visibly shaken. Once Tibbo and Man left her home, she changed the linens on her only bed and went to buy Snowden Chicken McNuggets and iced tea from a nearby McDonald’s. He thanked her and went to sleep.
The next morning, Snowden woke up early and dispatched Vanessa to buy the local English-language newspaper. “I was shocked,” she said, to learn his identity. She demanded to see his passport, and Snowden obliged. Still, despite being shaken and upset, she wasn’t overly concerned. “Mr. Tibbo would not put me in trouble. I just listened to him and didn’t talk to anyone,” she said during an interview with her lawyer present.
Vanessa arrived in Hong Kong in 2002 as a domestic care worker. The contract ended after three years, but she stayed and worked in the country illegally for about five years until she was arrested. She filed for a refugee claim in 2010 and has been Tibbo’s client since 2012.
Most of the time, Vanessa said her secret house guest was quiet and preoccupied on his computer. “He was worried a lot about his next step,” she said. “He talked about his past life. He was really scared most of the time.”
Snowden took cover at Vanessa’s home for about four days and once again gave US$200 to his host on his way out the door.
Snowden’s next stop was a tiny windowless, one-room apartment belonging to Ajith, the man who had been helping to move him around the city. The two men didn’t talk much mostly because of the language barrier — the Sri Lankan speaks little English.
“My feeling was he had big tensions, he was very scared, he was nervous,” recalled the lithe man with tattooed arms. Having landed in Hong Kong from a small town just outside Colombo in 2003 (too poor to bring his wife and one-year-old daughter with him) Ajith recalled that his guest was so jumpy “he would not let me open the door.”
Snowden stayed with Ajith only one night. On June 21 — his 30th birthday — the whistleblower was formally charged with three felonies under the 1917 U.S. Espionage Act. A criminal complaint was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, and the U.S. formally requested his arrest by the Hong Kong government. With that, the clock began ticking on when the U.S. would revoke his passport.
Ajith hid Edward Snowden in his tiny windowless, one-room apartment. (Jayne Russell for National Post)

Ajith hid Edward Snowden in his tiny windowless, one-room apartment. (Jayne Russell for National Post)

It was no longer safe to keep Snowden — who faced the prospect of a trial in Virginia, and up to 30 years in a maximum-security prison if convicted — with any refugees because they would be harbouring a fugitive from the law, making them even more vulnerable to Hong Kong government authorities.
Snowden was clearly concerned about how he would be treated if he was taken into custody by U.S. law enforcement. At the time, the military trial of Chelsea Elizabeth Manning, a 24-year-old former intelligence analyst in Iraq who passed along more than 700,000 classified documents to the Wikileaks website in 2010, was underway.
Before Snowden, Manning’s case ranked as the largest breach of classified materials in U.S. history. Manning was convicted of 20 counts by court martial after she pleaded guilty to 10 of the 22 charges under the U.S. Espionage Act.
During her incarceration, A UN envoy accused the U.S. of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment for keeping the former solider in solitary confinement at the Quantico military base in Virginia for almost a year. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in a maximum-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in August 2013.
After 12 days of hiding underground in Hong Kong’s refugee community, Snowden was shuttled to the home of one of his lawyers. Terrified of a drone attack, according to Tibbo, they still celebrated the fugitive’s milestone birthday with pizza, his favourite meal. With the U.S. justice system in hot pursuit, Snowden’s lawyers had advised him of his rights as a refugee claimant, including, his various options to cross borders, possible routes and modes of transportation.
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.
However, when Snowden landed in Moscow, he was grounded in the transit zone of the airport because his cancelled passport meant he was prohibited from boarding any further commercial flights.
“I never intended to end up in Russia, much less choose it,” he said. “When my government learned I had departed Hong Kong en route to Latin America, they cancelled my passport trapping me in a Russian airport. Unable to travel and unable to leave, I filed applications for asylum in 21 countries around the world, places like France, and Germany, Austria and Finland. But those countries neither accepted my respective requests nor permitted safe travel onwards.”
In the end, Snowden and Harrison were marooned at the Sheremetyevo airport for a month before the Russian government granted him temporary asylum, which was recently extended for another three years.
Snowden, now 33, remains America’s most wanted fugitive, although he has maintained that he would be prepared to return to the U.S. if he were guaranteed a fair trial. His lawyers are working on a plea deal and, more hopefully, are preparing to petition for a presidential pardon this fall. In the meantime, Snowden has multiple emissaries in different jurisdictions around the world in the event he is able to move from Moscow.
Most of Snowden’s time is focused on his work at the Freedom of the Press Foundation as he has forged a new life in Moscow with his long-time girlfriend Lindsay Mills. “I sleep in Russia, but thanks to technology, I (live) all over the world,” he said.
Inevitably, Oliver Stone’s movie will reignite the debate over whether the high-school dropout turned CIA computer whiz was a reckless traitor to his country or a disillusioned idealist with sincere motives.
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.”
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