On the Run to Moscow, Edward Snowden Keeps Americans Guessing

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Bobby Yip / REUTERS

Photos of Edward Snowden and President Barack Obama are printed on the front pages of local English and Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong on June 11, 2013

Six days before boarding a flight from Hong Kong to MoscowEdward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, warned the U.S. government of further disclosures of classified information. “The truth is coming, and it cannot be stopped,” he said in an online chat with the Guardian newspaper.

He was not bluffing. On Saturday, the South China Morning Post reported additional details of the NSA’s spying program in Hong Kong and China, including details of the U.S. government hacking Chinese mobile-phone companies, Chinese university computers and a major telecommunications company. One day later, the government of Hong Kong denied a U.S. request to arrest and deport Snowden in a statement that included a reference to the disclosures of NSA hacking in southern China.

The question now is how much more information Snowden is prepared to release, and what kind of protection that information can provide. The answers to those questions may go a long way in determining the legacy and effect of Snowden’s actions. Up to now, Snowden has won sympathy from the American public, with 54% of the country supporting his disclosures, and 30% disapproving in a TIME poll from early June. His disclosures up to that point focused largely on the legal framework and powers of electronic surveillance by the NSA. Snowden said last Monday that he had no contact with the Chinese government in Hong Kong. “I only work with journalists,” he claimed.

At the root of Snowden’s challenge is an emerging irony. He says he is motivated by outrage at the surveillance powers of the U.S., which he argues tip toward tyranny, but he has since provided valuable information about U.S. spying to China, a country with a far more aggressive surveillance state, and he has now fled to Russia, where there is little check on the intrusive powers of the state. (A recent Amnesty International report on Russia noted increasing repression in the face of peaceful political protest, new laws restricting freedom of speech and assembly, official harassment of human-rights defenders and systemic human-rights abuses by the state against the Russian people.) Snowden has reportedly asked for asylum in Ecuador, a country where journalists face criminal defamation charges for criticizing the government and the U.N. has raised concerns about extrajudicial murders by military and police forces.

Snowden has also argued that there is no nobility in turning himself over to U.S. authorities to face prosecution. “It would be foolish to volunteer yourself to it if you can do more good outside prison than in it,” he said on Monday. But the tradition of civil disobedience, with which he has identified, has often distinguished itself from traditional law breaking by submitting to the legal process. As civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “If you confront a man who has been cruelly misusing you, and say ‘Punish me, if you will; I do not deserve it, but I will accept it, so that the world will know I am right and you are wrong.'”

In the Guardian interview, Snowden made clear that he no longer believes he will get a fair trial in the U.S. The American people, by contrast, do believe he should face trial. The same TIME poll, from June 10 and 11, found that 53% of the country felt those who leaked classified data that might damage national security should be prosecuted. Only 28% of Americans felt he should not be prosecuted.

The fact that Snowden was able to flee Hong Kong is yet another embarrassment for the Obama Administration, which has struggled to handle the Snowden disclosures. The Justice Department waited weeks to request his extradition from Hong Kong, and apparently was unable to arrange cooperation with the government during that time. “Obviously this raises concerns for us, and we’ll continue to discuss with the authorities there,” a senior Administration official wrote in an e-mail to reporters on Sunday of Hong Kong’s decision to let Snowden leave.

But at this point further disclosures may be inevitable. Snowden has claimed that his capture or death will not prevent them, suggesting copies of the files he possesses are already in the hands of others. For a U.S. government focused on preventing other self-styled whistle-blowers from following in his footsteps, the more crucial challenge now may be in debating the substance of Snowden’s actions on the world stage. If he continues to be seen as a hero, who has done something good, Obama’s reputation as a civil libertarian will also continue to face pressure.

The White House has said Obama plans to address the matter further. Just how aggressively Obama chooses to take Snowden on may depend, in large part, on how the American public digests Snowden’s latest actions, and what he does next.