Edward Snowden, the former contractor at the National Security Agency who gave secret documents to journalists that described the agency’s digital surveillance operations, has eluded reporters trying to locate him. He did not board the plane on which he had been expected to fly from Moscow to Havana on Monday:
His ultimate destination was reported to be Ecuador, where he has asked for asylum, perhaps by way of Havana, where there are daily flights from Moscow.
But at a news conference in Hanoi on Monday, a few hours after the Havana-bound plane had left Moscow, Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño said he could not say where Snowden was.
“We are in close contact with the Russian government,” Patiño said, “but the specific information as to his whereabouts, we cannot share that at this time. We don’t have it and we can’t share it.”
Patiño said Ecuador, which has been sharply criticized for silencing journalists at home, was considering Snowden’s request for asylum. The diplomat delivered an impassioned defense of Snowden, who has admitted leaking government secrets about surveillance programs, and described his case as fundamentally based on the principle of human rights.
Moscow itself has had little to say about Snowden’s presence here. Despite a direct request from the United States to return him to U.S. soil to face charges of leaking government secrets, Russian officials said Monday that they had no legal authority to detain him after he arrived from Hong Kong on Sunday.
A frustrated Secretary of State John F. Kerry said he was troubled that neither China nor Russia responded to the espionage charges filed against Snowden by the United States by taking steps to transfer him to U.S. custody.
Authorities in Hong Kong did not prevent Snowden from leaving the city Saturday, which U.S. officials claimed was a political decision:
The Obama administration and politicians on Capitol Hill are likely to be infuriated if Snowden makes it to Ecuador, where he has requested asylum. But the former contractor who had worked at an NSA facility in Hawaii until he fled to Hong Kong skillfully placed his fate in the hands of WikiLeaks and countries that nurse animosities toward the United States. And Snowden’s odyssey is likely to exacerbate the United States’ strained relations with China and Russia.
“It is unfortunate that Hong Kong inappropriately failed to take action on our requests of them and permitted a fugitive to simply leave their country in an obvious attempt to escape justice,” a senior administration official said Sunday evening. In a statement earlier Sunday, the Hong Kong government said it had been provided “no legal basis to restrict Mr. Snowden from leaving.” . . .
On June 17, Hong Kong acknowledged receipt of the request, but officials in the Chinese territory did not respond to U.S. inquiries about whether they needed further information, according to a U.S. official who provided a timeline of events on the condition of anonymity. Officials in Hong Kong told the United States that the case was under review.
Two days later, Holder placed a phone call to his counterpart, Hong Kong Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen, and stressed the importance of the matter. He urged Hong Kong “to honor our request for Snowden’s arrest,” the U.S. official said.
On Friday, Hong Kong authorities requested more information about the charges, and the United States was in the process of responding when the Justice Department learned that Snowden had left, the U.S. official said.
One of Snowden’s lawyers in Hong Kong described how he spent his time there before leaving the city:
Unsure whether to trust this person but aware that his options were dwindling, Snowden decided to go for it, said the lawyer, Albert Ho. On Sunday morning, the 30-year-old American, who leaked top-secret U.S. documents, went to the airport with another of his lawyers, used his own passport and boarded an Aeroflot flight to Moscow without special assistance, according to Ho, all while plainclothes police officers hovered around him. . .
Ho said he first met Snowden late Tuesday night, getting into a car at a prearranged spot. Inside the car was Snowden, wearing a hat and sunglasses. Ho recognized him immediately.
Snowden didn’t speak. When they arrived at the home where Snowden was staying, the American whispered that everyone had to put their cellphones in the refrigerator. “Then he became very outspoken,” Ho said.
Snowden was “very smart” and analytical, said his lawyer, although he didn’t seem to have anticipated just how complicated his situation in Hong Kong would become.
“I don’t think he ever had a well-thought out plan,” said Ho, although he added that Snowden seemed to have researched places where he could take refuge.
For two hours that night, Snowden talked with his lawyers, who also included Jonathan Man, an associate at Ho’s firm, and Robert Tibbo, a refugee human rights lawyer. To mark Snowden’s birthday later that week — he turned 30 Friday — Ho brought over a large pizza and fried chicken. There was also Snowden’s preferred beverage, Pepsi.
WikiLeaks, the organization led by Julian Assange that has published reams of classified diplomatic cables and other documents, said it has been assisting Snowden:
When the former NSA contractor who leaked top-secret details of U.S. and British surveillance operations landed in Moscow on Sunday, Snowden disembarked from Aeroflot Flight SU213 with Sarah Harrison, a member of the WikiLeaks legal team, by his side. His arrival in Russia en route to a third country, in search of asylum from a U.S. extradition request, came after what appeared to be a Hollywoodesque plan to spirit him out of hiding in Hong Kong that was orchestrated with the aid of the whistleblower Web site. . .
The behind-the-scenes machinations once again shined a spotlight on WikiLeaks, the crusading organization that has become a thorn in the side of Western governments with its occasionally damaging, almost always embarrassing revelations of official secrets.
The brand of assistance offered by WikiLeaks in legal cases is well documented and potent, with the group displaying an uncanny ability to tap assistance from countries hostile to the West and particularly the United States. For more than a year, for instance, Assange has defied the odds against the British and Swedish legal systems, holing up at the Embassy of Ecuador, a stone’s throw from Harrods in opulent Knightsbridge, as he fights extradition to face allegations of sexual assault in Stockholm.
If Snowden reaches Cuba, he could find asylum in Ecuador or in Venezuela:
The three Latin American countries said to be helping Edward Snowden flee from American authorities are united in their opposition to the Obama administration and pursue foreign policy objectives designed to counter U.S. influence . . .
The Ecuadoran government of President Rafael Correa, a populist who expelled the U.S. ambassador from Quito in 2011, did not confirm the WikiLeaks account. But his administration, which has sought a greater role for the small country on the international stage, has reveled in the attention it has received since Assange holed up in its London embassy.
“Assange has been in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for a year,” Patiño said in a Thursday tweet. “We will not faint in this fight for liberty.”
Analysts who closely follow the region said it would make sense for the former contractor to the National Security Agency to wind up in Venezuela or Ecuador. Both countries are led by self-styled leftist leaders who are publicly hostile to the Obama administration and position themselves to oppose U.S. policies in this region and beyond.
“Their foreign policy is based on being the anti-United States, and so this is consistent with that posture,” said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They try, at every stop, to point out the problems they have with U.S. foreign policy.”
Ezra Klein argues that by following Snowden so closely across the world, the media risks forgetting to discuss the more important issue of what he disclosed:
Everyone is talking about “Edward Snowden.” The whole world knows what flight he was supposed to be on this morning and which countries he’s considering as safe harbors. The term “STELLARWIND,” by contrast, has largely dropped out of the news . . .
People angry about the government’s actions can cheer Snowden’s moxie and root for his flight. People angry about the leaks can hope the government manages to catch him. There’s a new plot twist each and every day. There will, presumably, be an eventual resolution to the Snowden story, such that those following it feel they have a sense of closure and can move onto other topics.
The Exciting Adventures of Edward Snowden haven’t stopped the press from digging deeper into the NSA programs, of course. The Washington Post and the Guardian have remained doggedly on the trail of the NSA programs. And just this weekend, McClatchy revealed the “Insider Threat” program that the Obama administration uses to keep this kind of information from leaking out.
But whereas those stories might, in another world, be leading a journalistic feeding frenzy and creating a relentless drumbeat for further revelations, in this world, it’s Operation: Snowden that has managed to capture the imagination of the American people (or at least the people interested in political news).
For more on how the National Security Agency operates and what Snowden and other sources have revealed about it, continue reading here.