MOSCOW — Before American fugitive Edward Snowden arrived in Moscow in June — an arrival that Russian officials have said caught them by surprise — he spent several days living at the Russian Consulate in Hong Kong, a Moscow newspaper reported Monday.
The article in Kommersant, based on accounts from several unnamed sources, did not state clearly when Snowden decided to seek Russian help in leaving Hong Kong, where he was in hiding to evade arrest by U.S. authorities on charges that he leaked top-secret documents about U.S. surveillance programs.
The disclosure of the documents brought worldwide scrutiny of U.S. spying efforts and triggered a vigorous debate in Congress about whether and under what circumstances the government should gather data on phone calls and e-mails.
Snowden arrived in Moscow on June 23 and spent more than a month stranded at Sheremetyevo International Airport, with his U.S. passport revoked and Washington urging other countries not to accept him.
Kommersant reported Monday that Snowden purchased a ticket June 21 to travel on Aeroflot, Russia’s national airline, from Hong Kong to Havana, through Moscow. He planned to fly from Havana to Ecuador or some other Latin American country.
That same day, he celebrated his 30th birthday at the Russian Consulate in Hong Kong, the paper said — although several days earlier he had had an anticipatory birthday pizza with his lawyers at a private house.
Kommersant cited conflicting accounts as to what brought Snowden to the consulate, on the 21st floor of a skyscraper in a fashionable neighborhood. It quoted a Russian close to the Snowden case as saying that the former NSA contractor arrived on his own initiative and asked for help. But a Western official also interviewed by the newspaper alleged that Russia had invited him.
The Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the article.
Until now, Russian officials have said that Snowden’s arrival in Moscow was a surprise, and not entirely welcome.
“It is true that Mr. Snowden arrived in Moscow, which was completely unexpected for us,” President Vladimir Putin told reporters in Finland in late June.
“[W]e were unaware he was coming here,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Wall Street Journal on June 24.
Snowden never made it to Havana. The United States revoked his passport and sought his return to stand trial.
Kommersant quoted unnamed Russian officials as saying that the Cubans decided to refuse Snowden entry under U.S. pressure, leaving him stranded. That version stands in contrast to widespread speculation that the Russians never intended to let the former CIA employee travel onward.
The article implies that Snowden’s decision to seek Russian help came after he was joined in Hong Kong by Sarah Harrison, a WikiLeaks staff member who became his adviser and later flew to Moscow with him.
Harrison, the article suggests, had a role in making the plans. The article noted a statement released by WikiLeaks on June 23, shortly after the Aeroflot flight left Chinese airspace, which said Snowden was heading to a destination where his safety could be guaranteed.