In a previous New York Times article, Hasty Exit Started With Pizza Inside a Hong Kong Hideout, this Edward Snowden statement caught my attention.
Mr. Snowden said little until they had arrived at a home, where he took Mr. Man aside and told him that “all the phones should be put in the refrigerator, the entire phones, and then he became very outspoken,” Mr. Ho said.
In this small act, we see the technological, political, and strategic naivety of Mr Snowden. He believed that the cell phones would be the only access point. It is likely that he believed this was the case from his own work experience. He may legitimately believe that his was the only way in which the conversation could be overheard or captured.
Do you know as much as you think you do?
He may believe that he knows all about the NSA or CIA capabilities for surveillance because he worked with those agencies. Such a belief, though, is naïve. Organisations will have sources and methods which are tightly compartmentalized so that people working in the same organisations may not be aware of what other sides of it are doing.
Political naivety is when you do not know or understand what motives your allies.
The deeper problem is Mr Snowden’s political naivety. In this meeting, he assumes that the people he is meeting are sympathetic to his cause. He appears to believe this because he has been told this, yet he lacks the ability to verify their motives helping him. Even though he went to Mr Ho who is an outspoken advocate for democracy in Hong Kong, that does not mean that he or his allies share his goals. Moreover, they may not be what they appear. Mr Snowden does not have the ability to determine whether Mr Ho is an agent for the Chinese government for example. This brings us to the deepest problem, Mr Snowden’s strategic naivety.
Who was Mr Snowden’s friend in Hong Kong?
What we learn from this account is that Mr Snowden relied on someone he met on a previous visit to Hong Kong. This suggests that Mr Snowden had planned his escape and knew that he would need to contact this person for help. Moreover, he knew that this person would be able to help him in the way that he wanted to be helped.
When Mr. Snowden came to Hong Kong from Hawaii in late May, he looked up a person whom he had met on a previous vacation here. That person, whom Mr. Ho declined to identify but described as a well-connected Hong Kong resident, became Mr. Snowden’s “carer.” Mr. Snowden accepted an invitation to stay in the home of one of that person’s friends when he checked out of the Mira Hotel on June 10, and the individual put him in touch with two local lawyers.
Here the strategic naivety becomes explicit. Mr Snowden assumes that the home of his “carer” is free from surveillance. Yet, he has no basis to assume that is the case. He has no basis to assume that the home is not under the surveillance of the Chinese intelligence services, local law enforcement, or even a third country. Furthermore, he has no way to know if the friend’s home is already fitted with surveillance devices for this very purpose. If this is indeed a safe house, it makes one wonder whose safe house it was. It would suggest that his could be a safe house for either the Chinese or the Russian intelligence agencies. Perhaps instead of naivety, it is what Mr Snowden planned for he found his safe house and safe passage. He knew he was protected from other surveillance because it was a safe house provided by his handlers.