Was Edward Snowden a Spy?

The allegations made last week by former US vice president Dick Cheney that the National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden could be a spy for China is off track, and he knows it, and are a deliberate public distraction as the Obama administration searches for scapegoats in the midst of defending the NSA surveillance programs with their one and only trump card.

Meanwhile Snowden, now formally charged by the US Justice Department and slapped with a provisional arrest warrant, is leaking more materials about the massive clandestine eavesdropping programs, some contrary to disclaimers made earlier by the US government, as he plotted his way out of Hong Kong aboard a Russian jet, which he did on June 23, and was reportedly escorted away by a diplomatic vehicle that took him off the back of the plane. He is said to be headed for Ecuador, the bolt-hole of Wikileaks head Julian Assange.

Despite what the US says about its legal paperwork being in order - Washington probably was happy to see Snowden leave, especially as Russia's was probably the only airline which would take him and Moscow is hardly known for democracy or rule of law, at least from the US point of view. But that does raise the issue of why the US charged him rather than waiting for his Hong Kong tourist visa to expire, which Hong Kong would either have had to renew - unlikely - or to have arrested him on a provisional warrant, so his option was to have had go to Moscow anyway.

Snowden left but with his passport annulled, a warrant on his head plus criminal charges of espionage, theft and communicating classified intelligence to unauthorized persons.

Cheney condemned Snowden for the series of explosive leaks in an interview with Fox News last week, branding the Booz-Allen contractor a "traitor" and questioning his decision to go to Hong Kong, suggesting he could be a Chinese spy.

"I'm suspicious because he went to China. That's not a place where you would ordinarily want to go if you are interested in freedom, liberty and so forth," said Cheney. "It raises questions whether or not he had that kind of connection before he did this."

Cheney's failure to distinguish Hong Kong, the Special Administrative Region, with its different set of laws, from the mainland categorically on the front of "freedom, liberty and so forth" not only raised eyebrows but amplified his deliberate naivete in global geopolitics.

How on earth did "one of the largest American Chambers outside the US" happens to be in Hong Kong, where Francisco Sanchez, the US Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade, said in a conference last month that Hong Kong "has a long history of rule of law, intellectual property rights protection" to be "good partners in helping American companies"?

But that's not the only disturbing fact.

Seriously, with all due respect to Cheney's wealth of political experience, does he honestly think if China had recruited a spy in someone like Snowden, a well-placed highly valuable asset given his access to such classified data, they would have been crazy enough to pull him out of the cold and splash him out of the blue on Chinese turf for maximum global publicity and blunt ridicule like Cheney's?

Objectively speaking, for all the information known and revealed to the world to date, there is no sufficient evidence to label Snowden as a spy, or double agent, for China or any other countries. Now that he has departed Hong Kong for countries willing to defy the US, can he still be argued to be a spy or double agent? It remains a relevant question, at least for Dick Cheney.

But I have a question for Cheney: if the US had recruited a Chinese spy with all the access like the 29-year-old Snowden, would it not be in the American interest to protect the double agent so he can continue doing what he does best for as long as possible?

And it isn't like Cheney hasn't experienced this before. In the White House since the Nixon and Ford administrations, holding positions like White House Chief of Staff in the 1970s, Secretary of Defense from 1989 to 1993 and vice president between 2001 and 2009, the name Robert Hanssen must ring a bell. Hanssen, a former FBI agent, spied for the Soviet and Russian intelligence services against the US – the Soviet and Russian era for 22 years between 1979 and 2001, spanning almost the entire Cheney spell in the White House.

"What took you guys so long?" was the first remark made upon his eventual arrest, according to a biography on Hanssen, who is now serving a life sentence without parole.

Hanssen was widely considered the worst intelligence disaster in US history and if Cheney was serious about Snowden being a Chinese spy, he should be praying on his knees that the Chinese, unlike the Russians, are such an impatient lot.

Meanwhile, it was serious business in the office last week as the US intelligence top brass were paraded in to brief Congress and President Obama tried to convince European leaders on the US surveillance programs. Their trump card: the covert programs are necessary and have been successful in protecting Americans and preventing potential terrorist plots in the US and more than 20 other countries.

In the aftermath of these "damaging" leaks, it is imperative that the NSA review their internal controls and standard operating procedures to understand how a NSA contractor like Snowden, with all the access, was able to download highly classified data. Seriously, most if not all the major Wall Street banks have taken the right measures on this front.

But the authorities have been busy finding scapegoats instead. The US federal inspectors are now conducting criminal investigations into USIS, the largest contractor employed to conduct security background checks for the US government for "systematic failure" despite claims the investigations have nothing to do with Snowden. And a US senator has called for investigations of NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden's former employer, for hiring someone convicted of lying to the US government for a highly classified job.

Here is the dichotomy: While the corporate world is still coping with US regulations on better corporate governance practices, where does the notion of whistleblowing stand right now?

(Vanson Soo runs an independent business intelligence and commercial investigations practice specialized in the Greater China region. Blog: http://vansonsoo.com)