- - Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Pentagon is concerned that a former National Security Agency contractor who is now in Hong Kong will compromise top-secret electronic intelligence programs targeted against China, according to a defense official.

Edward Snowden, the former NSA technician who surfaced in Hong Kong Sunday, worked on highly classified electronic intelligence programs targeting China at the NSA’s Kunia facility in Hawaii.

Snowden’s exact whereabouts are not known. He told the South China Morning Post in an interview published Wednesday that he plans to remain in the former British colony, something that likely would upset U.S.-China relations. “My intention is to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate,” he was quoted as saying.

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Hong Kong is led by a chief executive who follows Beijing’s dictates on all security and foreign policy matters.

Snowden also provided documents to the newspaper showing that NSA has been hacking into computers in Hong Kong and in mainland China since 2009. None revealed data on Chinese military systems, he said.

According to the report, Snowden claimed there were “hundreds” of NSA intelligence targets in Hong Kong and the mainland.

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“We hack network backbones—like huge internet routers, basically—that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one,” he said.

On Capitol Hill, Army Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency, defended NSA surveillance and said Snowden’s dislosures had already damaged national security.

“Great harm has already been done by opening this up, and the consequence, I believe, is our security is jeopardized,” Alexander said.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we will lose capabilities as a result of this and that not only the United States but those allies that we have helped will no longer be as safe as they were two weeks ago. So I am really concerned about that.”

The defense official said it is possible Snowden may already have contact with MSS officials in Hong Kong. The MSS, China’s top intelligence agency, is believed to have hundreds or even thousands of operatives working in Hong Kong, a former British colony that is slowly coming under Beijing’s political control.

Pentagon intelligence officials are concerned Snowden will barter with Chinese authorities using his access to top-secret intelligence data to avoid being sent back to the United States, said the defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is the subject of a federal criminal investigation.

“The worst case scenario is that in order to avoid extradition efforts by the U.S., Snowden will offer secrets to the Chinese,” said the official. “It is a potential catastrophe.”

The official said in this worst-case scenario the Chinese would “squeeze” Snowden and extract as much classified information about NSA spying programs against China as possible over the next year and then later likely return him to the United States.

A Chinese official, meanwhile, was quoted by a Hong Kong newspaper on Wednesday as saying the U.S. government has not requested Chinese assistance in locating and repatriating Snowden.

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