Edward J. Snowden, the fugitive former National Security Agency contractor wanted by the United States for leaking classified documents, foiled his American pursuers Sunday by fleeing a Hong Kong hide-out for Moscow aboard a commercial Russian jetliner, in what appeared to be the first step in an odyssey to seek political asylum in Ecuador.
It was a day of frustrated scrambling by U.S. officials who have been seeking Snowden’s extradition and had annulled his passport a day before he left Hong Kong as part of an effort to thwart escape. The authorities in Hong Kong said they lacked complete information to prevent his departure.
Snowden boarded an Aeroflot jetliner that reached Moscow on Sunday afternoon. Russian news agencies said Snowden was in a transit area, and Ecuador embassy officials, including the ambassador, were seen at the airport into the early hours of today.
Ecuador’s government and WikiLeaks, the organization that exposes government secrets and has come to the assistance of Snowden, seem to have played a critical role in helping spirit him away from Hong Kong.
Ecuador’s foreign minister said that Snowden had submitted a request for asylum. In a statement on its website, WikiLeaks said, “He is bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from WikiLeaks.”
The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, who has resided in Ecuador’s London embassy for a year because of his own fugitive status, said in an interview that his group had arranged for Snowden to travel via a “special refugee travel document” issued by Ecuador last Monday — days before the United States announced the criminal charges against him and revoked his passport. Assange said he believed Ecuador was still considering Snowden’s asylum application.
An official at Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry in Quito declined to comment on Snowden. But the official said the foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño Aroca, who was on a trip to Asia, was expected to talk about the Snowden case if asked at a news conference later today in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Snowden’s disclosures of far-reaching U.S. government snooping into Internet and telephone records around the world has set off a major debate in the United States over government invasion of privacy. Snowden and his allies, including WikiLeaks, have called him a whistle-blower. U.S. officials, who call the surveillance necessary to thwart terrorist plots, have called his actions criminal and last week announced they had charged him with violations of espionage laws.
The Obama administration was clearly flustered by Snowden’s successful escape. The Justice Department said in a statement that “The U.S. is disappointed and disagrees with the determination by Hong Kong authorities not to honor the U.S. request for the arrest of the fugitive, Edward J. Snowden.” The statement said assertions by Hong Kong that it lacked sufficient information to carry out an arrest were “particularly troubling.”
A State Department official said it had taken steps to remind countries on Snowden’s potential transit path to Ecuador that he was a fugitive.
“The United States has been in touch via diplomatic and law enforcement channels with countries in the Western Hemisphere through which Snowden might transit or that could serve as final destinations,” the official said. “The U.S. is advising these governments that Snowden is wanted on felony charges, and as such should not be allowed to proceed in any further international travel, other than is necessary to return him to the United States.”
The director of the National Security Agency said Sunday that Snowden’s disclosures had caused “irreversible damage” to U.S. intelligence. Speaking on ABC’s “This Week” after the news of Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong had broken, the director, Gen. Keith B. Alexander, said: “This is not an individual who in my opinion was acting with noble intent.”
The United States had asked Hong Kong authorities to find and detain Snowden, where he had been in hiding for the past few weeks, but the Hong Kong government said Sunday that it had requested clarifications about the request and legally could not stop him from boarding the flight to Moscow.
Russia’s Interfax news service, citing a “person familiar with the situation,” reported that Snowden would remain in transit at an airport in Moscow for “several hours” pending an onward flight to Cuba today, and would therefore not formally cross the Russian border or be subject to detention.
A Justice Department spokeswoman in Washington, Nanda Chitre, confirmed that the Hong Kong authorities had informed the U.S. government of Snowden’s departure.
“We will continue to discuss this matter with Hong Kong and pursue relevant law enforcement cooperation with other countries where Mr. Snowden may be attempting to travel,” Chitre said in a statement.
Lawmakers criticize China, Russia
The United States had asked Hong Kong authorities to extradite Edward J. Snowden so he could face criminal charges for leaking of details of secret U.S. surveillance programs. But lawmakers on TV news programs Sunday said China and Russia conspired to help Snowden flee.
“What’s infuriating here is [President Vladimir] Putin of Russia aiding and abetting Snowden’s escape,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer. D-N.Y., said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “Allies are supposed to treat each other in decent ways, and Putin always seems almost eager to put a finger in the eye of the United States, whether it is Syria, Iran, and now of course, with Snowden. … I think it will have serious consequences for the United States-Russia relationship.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, pointed to Beijing. “I think it’s a very big surprise,” she said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “I had actually thought that China would see this as an opportunity to improve relations and extradite him to the United States. China clearly had a role in this, in my view.”
“The freedom trail is not exactly China-Russia-Cuba-Venezuela, so I hope we’ll chase him to the ends of the Earth, bring him to justice and let the Russians know there’ll be consequences if they harbor this guy,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on “Fox News Sunday.”
— Chicago Tribune