NEW YORK –- The last person known to have spoken to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is Lana Lam, a reporter for Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post. That was Wednesday.
In the hour-long interview, Snowden made a headline-grabbing claim -- that there have been 61,000 NSA hacking operations worldwide, including with targets in Hong Kong and mainland China –- and spoke of his decision to head to Hong Kong on May 20, a couple weeks before The Guardian and Washington Post broke major stories related to NSA documents he provided. “My intention is to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate,” he said.
Snowden revealed his identity Sunday in a video published by The Guardian, which has driven recent news coverage of the U.S. surveillance state and promises more to come. But the only interview Snowden has given since was to the South China Morning Post, an exclusive that’s attracted worldwide attention to the nearly 110-year-old English-language newspaper’s website.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei said the Snowden interview represents an “unprecedented opportunity” for the paper to boost its international profile.
It’s not yet clear how the South China Morning Post landed the interview or the circumstances surrounding it. The paper disclosed in its story that the interview was “carried out from a secret location in the city” and that at Snowden’s request, the paper “cannot divulge details about how the interview was conducted.”
“Once this whole thing is over,” Xiangwei said, “our reporters and editors will write a postscript article, like the Guardian did -- how we got hold of the interview, how it was conducted.”
Broadly speaking, Xiangwei said the first thing his staff did after the Guardian video was posted was to try and figure out which hotel he was speaking from. Based on the view of Victoria Harbor from the window, reporters headed to the W hotel at Kowloon Station and found Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, who was staying on the 19th floor. But Snowden was apparently staying at the Mira Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui and had checked out Monday morning.
Xiangwei said the paper put its “best reporters and editors all our best resources to work on this story, and then we got lucky and we found him.”
It's still unclear how the interview was arranged. “Without getting into specifics, we were approached,” Xiangwei added. “Not directly by him, but we were approached.”
After completing the interview Wednesday afternoon Hong Kong time, Xiangwei said the paper’s top writers and editors worked to get the first part of it online that evening. The reaction, he said, was immediate, with calls and emails coming in soon after from major U.S. networks –- including ABC, CBS and NBC –- to television stations in Russian, India and Mexico.
Many news outlets requested to speak with him or Lana Lam, the reporter who broke the story. But some outlets asked for an introduction to Snowden, which unsurprisingly was turned down. “If I have a source like that, I will keep it forever,” he said.
Xiangwei, who has worked at the paper for 17 years and became its top editor in 2012, said he briefly thought the site had been hacked Wednesday evening when the system became unstable. The reason, however, was because of a surge in web traffic. “It’s a problem we were quite happy to see,” he said.
On Friday evening in Hong Kong -- or morning in New York -- the top five most-viewed stories on the paper's site were all related to Snowden. Xiangwei said he’s been informed that page views and unique visitors have increased by eight times the paper’s average. The "traffic we’ve witnessed over the past few days is tremendous and unprecedented," he said.
Xiangwei said the paper has reported “almost all” of the interview, but noted “there were some parts he requested that we should not report for that moment.” The paper will continue to deploy resources for this unfolding story.
“We believe that no matter what happens to Mr. Snowden, what he did, the implications from his explosive revelations will continue for a long time,” Xiangwei said.