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US suggests whistleblower 'in league with the Chinese'

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Paul McGeough

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Washington: US lawmakers have set out to puncture the claimed altruism of the man whose disclosure of top-secret surveillance programs have caused a storm in Washington, portraying him as a Beijing partisan in continuing US-China cyber wars.

Offering no supporting evidence, figures in the House intelligence committee posed questions that suggested Edward Snowden, an intelligence computer systems administrator who has fled to Hong Kong, was in league with the Chinese government.

Throwing out a suggestion that Mr Snowden had defected to China proper, as opposed to stopping over in Hong Kong where he says the legal system will provide a tribunal in which he might best challenge a likely American bid for his extradition, committee chairman Mike Rogers told reporters: ''Clearly, we're going to make sure that there's a thorough scrub of what his China connections are.''

Branding the 29-year-old Mr Snowden a ''traitor'', Mr Rogers, a Republican, ticked off the queries: ''We need to ask a lot more questions about his motives, his connections, where he ended up, why he's there, how is he sustaining himself while he is there, and is the Chinese government fully co-operating?''

As recently as last weekend's summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, US President Barack Obama aired American grievances over the Chinese government hacking the computer systems of US corporations. But on Friday a spokeswoman at the Foreign Ministry in Beijing insisted that China was a victim, not a perpetrator.

A report and an editorial in the state-run China Daily warned American hacking of Chinese interests would ''test developing Sino-US ties'' and further sour the cyber security relationship between the two countries.

''Observers said how the [Snowden] case is handled could pose a challenge to the burgeoning goodwill between Beijing and Washington, given that Snowden is in Chinese territory and the Sino-US relationship is constantly soured on cyber security,'' the Chinese newspaper said.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post on Tuesday, Mr Snowden reduced Washington's oft-stated complaints of Chinese cyber espionage against US interests to self-serving whingeing, by alleging that Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland had been the targets of hundreds of more than 61,000 global hacking operations by the US National Security Agency.

In the domestic US context, Mr Snowden argues he disclosed information on the extent of Washington's surveillance of domestic and international phone calls in the US and its monitoring of international internet and social media traffic, to prompt a full debate on balancing security and privacy.

In the interview he gave to the South China Morning Post, he said he was releasing the data on American spying on Hong Kong and China to reveal ''the hypocrisy of the US government when it claims it does not target civilian infrastructure, unlike its adversaries''.

Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, told reporters: ''[Snowden] chose to go to China, a country that's cyber attacking us every single day, taking billions of dollars of American business data.

''It seems unusual that he would be in China and asking for protection of the Chinese government. We're going to investigate.''

Committee chairman Rogers added: ''There's a long list of questions we've got to get answers about. Does he have a relationship with a foreign government and is there more to this story?''

On the risk that the four laptops carried by Mr Snowden on his arrival in Hong Kong were loaded with more data than Mr Snowden has already leaked, Mr Rogers confirmed that a ''damage assessment'' was under way at the NSA.

Arguing there could be no certainty on what else Mr Snowden might have, he said: ''It's clear that he attempted to go places that he was not authorised to go, which raised questions for everyone.''

In Hong Kong, politicians were quick to demand a halt to any American hacking of island interests, with several suggesting Mr Snowden be summoned to appear before them to answer questions on his allegations, for which the South China Morning Post reported he had provided supporting documents.

After closed briefings for members of Congress on Thursday, the NSA undertook to release, in coming days, more specific information on the effectiveness of its surveillance in thwarting terrorist plots.