MOSCOW (CNN) – The man who leaked details of U.S. government surveillance programs was on the run late Sunday, seeking asylum in Ecuador with the aid of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, the organization and Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry announced.
Edward Snowden, the onetime contract analyst for the National Security Agency, left Hong Kong after the U.S. government sought his extradition on espionage charges, WikiLeaks said. He landed in Moscow, where a CNN crew spotted a car with diplomatic plates and an Ecuadorian flag at the Russian capital’s international airport.
WikiLeaks, which facilitates the publication of classified information, did not disclose what country would be Snowden’s final destination. But Ecuador has already given WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange refuge in its embassy in London for nearly a year after he unsuccessfully fought extradition to Sweden in British courts.
And Washington is asking Ecuador, as well as Cuba and Venezuela, not to admit Snowden, a senior Obama administration official told CNN on Sunday. The United States also is asking those countries to expel him if they do admit him, the official said, and a a source familiar with the matter told CNN that the U.S. government has revoked Snowden’s passport.
Snowden “left Hong Kong legally” and is headed to Ecuador “via a safe route for the purposes of asylum,” WikiLeaks said in a statement issued Sunday afternoon. He is accompanied by diplomats and lawyers for WikiLeaks, including former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, according to a statement from the organization.
“The WikiLeaks legal team and I are interested in preserving Mr. Snowden’s rights and protecting him as a person,” said Garzon, who also represents Assange. “What is being done to Mr. Snowden and to Mr Julian Assange — for making or facilitating disclosures in the public interest — is an assault against the people.”
Snowden has admitted he was the source who leaked classified documents about the NSA’s surveillance programs to the British newspaper the Guardian and to The Washington Post. The documents revealed the existence of programs that collect records of domestic telephone calls in the United States and monitor the Internet activity of overseas residents.
The revelation of the leaks rocked the Obama administration and U.S. intelligence community, raising questions about secret operations of the NSA and whether the agency was infringing on American civil liberties.
Hong Kong: Extradition request didn’t comply with requirements
Snowden left Hong Kong on Sunday “through a lawful and normal channel,” the government of the semi-autonomous Chinese territory said Sunday. The U.S. government anounnced Friday that it was charging Snowden with espionage and theft of government property and asked Hong Kong authorities to hold him for extradition proceedings.
In a statement Sunday, Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre said Hong Kong authorities had informed U.S. officials 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,” she said.
The U.S. government had also asked Hong Kong to issue a provisional arrest warrant for Snowden, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region said in a statement. But HKSAR officials said there were problems with the request.
“Since the documents provided by the U.S. government did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law, the HKSAR government has requested the U.S. government to provide additional information,” Hong Kong officials said.
Because Hong Kong didn’t have enough information, “there is no legal basis to restrict Mr. Snowden from leaving Hong Kong,” the government said.
A Justice Department official said Sunday that the United States had met requirements with its request, disputing the assertion from authorities in Hong Kong.
“They came back to us with a few questions late Friday and we were in the process of answering those questions,” the official said. “We believe we were meeting those requirements. As far as the relationship with Hong Kong goes, this raises questions and we will continue to discuss with authorities there.”
Hong Kong’s lack of intervention came after Snowden told the South China Morning Post that U.S. intelligence agents have been hacking computer networks in Hong Kong and mainland China for years.
Hong Kong said it wanted to have some words with the United States about that.
“The HKSAR government has formally written to the U.S. government requesting clarification on earlier reports about the hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong by U.S. government agencies,” Hong Kong officials said in the same statement. “The HKSAR government will continue to follow up on the matter so as to protect the legal rights of the people of Hong Kong.”
U.S. federal prosecutors have charged Snowden with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person. The latter two counts amount to espionage under the federal Espionage Act.
Hong Kong Executive Council member Regina Ip said authorities could arrest Snowden if his actions qualify as criminal under Hong Kong law, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported earlier Sunday. The executive council decides on policy matters for Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China.
But if the charges against him were deemed to be political in nature, the 30-year-old would not be extradited, Ip told Xinhua.
President Barack Obama, top legislators and national security officials defend the surveillance programs Snowden detailed as necessary to combat terrorism and argue that some privacy must be sacrificed in a balanced approach.
They say the law allows collection of metadata, such as the time and numbers of phone calls, and that a special federal court must approve accessing the content — listening to the call itself.
In interviews this month, Snowden said he fled with the classified documents after taking a leave of absence from his job as an intelligence analyst for NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. The company has since fired him.
A series of blog posts this week purportedly by Snowden said he leaked classified details about U.S. surveillance programs because Obama worsened “abusive” practices, instead of curtailing them as he promised as a candidate.
Snowden said that he had to get out of the United States before the leaks were published to avoid being targeted by the government.