For more than 40 years, the US has ensnarled itself in a tradition of "exposure for the public good." It started in early 1970s with a defense analyst named Daniel Ellsberg leaking the so-called "Pentagon Papers," exposing the deliberately misleading US policy vis-à-vis the Vietnam War.
This was soon followed by the captivating series of unbelievably detailed write-ups by two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, on the Watergate scandal implicating then-president Richard Nixon. "Deep Throat," the pair's famously secret insider source of information, was revealed to be then FBI associate director Mark Felt in 2005.
Over the past few years, however, the world was flabbergasted by the sheer volume of US diplomatic cables as revealed by WikiLeaks, whose founder, Julian Assange is sheltered inside the Embassy of Ecuador in London after being sought on charges of sexual impropriety. Meanwhile, original leaker Bradley Manning has been harshly prosecuted.
The latest is Edward Snowdon. At almost the same time as the former military analyst provided proofs to the media on the US government's clandestine efforts to eavesdrop not only on its own citizens domestically, but also almost any electronic communications by almost any party globally, Snowden made a dramatic appearance in Hong Kong.
These revelations surfaced at almost the same time when US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping were having their one-to-one powwow in California, where China's supposed links to cyber attacks on US assets were probably on the agenda.
The Snowden incident turned the table on the US people and put them in the understandably uncomfortable defensive, what with their worldwide snooping tricks on public display, albeit just after the California summit.
But the apparently media-savvy Snowden's Hong Kong "hide away" presents very unique predicaments for all three parties concerned: the US, Hong Kong, and the Chinese mainland. Snowden is conducting a one-man crusade against the behemoth US intelligence community, perhaps with the unwitting help of an eager media and public opinion across two continents.
If the Obama administration were to prosecute Snowden, and thereby request for his extradition from Hong Kong, for any charges from mishandling of classified information to treason, it risks alienating first of all a divided US public, at least half of whom are doggedly liberal in their political outlook, treasuring personal privacy over national security and therefore glorifying Snowden as a "hero" for freedom of information.
Furthermore, it will tarnish the US' long vaunted global image as a symbol of freedom and democracy.
If the Obama administration does formally request for the extradition of Snowden, Hong Kong will also be hard to make a decision.
Existing agreements allow for his extradition. However, close to half of Hong Kong residents are against handing Snowden over. A responsive Hong Kong government could not possibly ignore this expression of popular will, not to mention the potential blow to its international image as a free and liberal financial hub.
And the Chinese mainland, which exercises ultimate sovereignty over Hong Kong and implicitly final decision over whether to extradite Snowden if formally requested by US, must also weigh carefully.
Handing over Snowden would appear to further enhance the ever closer Sino-US partnership, especially in the afterglow of the California summit. But it could also be contrary to the popular sentiments in China, where many harbor positive views for Snowden, praising him for rendering the US to a low moral ground in future negotiations.
But both the mainland and Hong Kong should look beyond these immediate concerns in handling the Snowden affair.
For one, it is a long-standing international practice that in a request for extradition, when the "fugitive" is alleged to have committed a crime which is only detrimental to the requesting but not the requested jurisdiction, the requested authorities typically "go slow" or even effectively not act on the request.
China should also realize that if the situation was reversed, with a Chinese version of Snowden ending up on US shores, the US will almost under no circumstance hand him back to China, so there is no need for China to extend its unilaterally friendly gesture to the US.
Instead, China should make good use of the "one country, two systems" practice with regards to Hong Kong, and let the Hong Kong authorities deal with Snowden in accordance with their own laws.
The author is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University. firstname.lastname@example.org