Monday, June 24, 2013

Snowden, in Russia, Seeks Asylum in Ecuador

June 23, 2013

Snowden, in Russia, Seeks Asylum in Ecuador

New York Times

WASHINGTON — The American authorities scrambled Sunday to figure out how to catch Edward J. Snowden, the former national security contractor accused of espionage, as he led them on an international chase, frustrating the Obama administration and threatening to strain relations on three continents.

Diplomats and law enforcement officials from the United States warned countries in Latin America not to harbor Mr. Snowden or allow him to pass through to other destinations after he fled Hong Kong for Moscow, possibly en route to Ecuador or another nation where he could seek asylum.

Mr. Snowden managed to elude capture just as American officials were asking the Hong Kong authorities to detain and send him to the United States on charges that he illegally disclosed classified documents about global American surveillance programs. He was aided in his escape by WikiLeaks, the antisecrecy organization, whose founder said he helped arrange special refugee travel documents from Ecuador.

The foreign minister of Ecuador confirmed receiving an asylum request from Mr. Snowden. As of early Monday morning in Russia, Mr. Snowden was believed to be staying the night inside the transit zone of a Moscow airport where he was visited by an Ecuadorean diplomat. It was not clear whether he would be allowed to travel further or, if he were, whether Ecuador would indeed be his final destination.

Russian news services reported that Mr. Snowden would take a Monday afternoon flight to Cuba, prompting a late rush for tickets from the horde of journalists gathered at the airport. But others dismissed it as a ruse to put the news media and others off Mr. Snowden’s trail.

The White House, in its first official statement released just after midnight Monday morning, expressed disappointment in Hong Kong’s decision to allow Mr. Snowden to leave and pressed Russia to turn him over, citing the cooperation between the two countries since the Boston Marathon bombings.

Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, pointedly noted that the United States had returned “numerous high level criminals back to Russia at the request of the Russian government,” then added: “We expect the Russian government to look at all options available to expel Mr. Snowden back to the U.S. to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged.”

The turn of events opened a startling new chapter in a case that had already captivated many in the United States and around the world. Mr. Snowden’s transcontinental escape was seen as a fresh embarrassment for the Obama administration and raised questions about its tactics in the case, like its failure to immediately revoke Mr. Snowden’s passport.

It also further complicated Washington’s ties with Russia and China, where at least some officials take delight in tweaking what they call American double standards.

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, said in an interview from his own refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London that he had raised Mr. Snowden’s case with Ecuador’s government and that his group had helped arrange the travel documents. Baltasar Garzón, the renowned Spanish jurist who advises WikiLeaks, said in a statement that “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.”

Obama administration officials privately expressed frustration that Hong Kong allowed Mr. Snowden to board an Aeroflot plane bound for Moscow on Sunday despite the American request for his detention. But they did not revoke Mr. Snowden’s passport until Saturday and did not ask Interpol to issue a “red notice” seeking his arrest.

An administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said no red notice was requested because they are “most valuable when the whereabouts of a fugitive are unknown.” Mr. Snowden was known to be in Hong Kong, so his provisional arrest was sought under an existing American agreement with Hong Kong.

On Sunday, the Hong Kong authorities said that the American arrest request “did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law,” and therefore they could not legally stop Mr. Snowden from leaving. The Justice Department rejected this explanation and provided a timeline of interactions suggesting that the Hong Kong authorities first requested “additional information” on Friday.

“At no point, in all of our discussions through Friday, did the authorities in Hong Kong raise any issues regarding the sufficiency of the U.S.'s provisional arrest request,” a department official said. “In light of this, we find their decision to be particularly troubling.”

By the end of the day American officials, unsure whether Mr. Snowden was actually heading to Ecuador, or possibly Cuba or Venezuela, as also variously reported, were sending messages to an array of possible destinations.

“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,” a State Department official said in a statement.

President Obama, who has drawn criticism since the disclosure of domestic telephone data and foreign Internet communications surveillance programs, remained silent on the latest developments on Sunday. Aides said only that he was being updated by national security officials and that he had not made any telephone calls personally to foreign leaders seeking cooperation.

Legal experts said the administration appeared to have flubbed Mr. Snowden’s case. “What mystifies me is that the State Department didn’t revoke his passport after the charges were filed” on June 14, said David H. Laufman, a former federal prosecutor. “They missed an opportunity to freeze him in place.” He said he was also puzzled by the decision to unseal the charges on Friday rather than waiting until the defendant was in custody.

While officials said Mr. Snowden’s passport was revoked on Saturday, it was not clear whether the Hong Kong authorities knew that by the time he boarded the plane, nor was it clear whether revoking it earlier would have made a difference, given the Ecuadorean travel document that Mr. Assange said he helped arrange. When Mr. Snowden landed in Moscow, he was informed of his passport revocation.

Mr. Assange said he did not know whether Mr. Snowden might be able to travel beyond Moscow using the Ecuadorean document. “Different airlines have different rules, so it’s a technical matter whether they will accept the document,” he said.

Mr. Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London a year ago to avoid being sent to Sweden for questioning in a sexual-offense investigation, but the British authorities have not permitted him to leave the country without risking arrest. Mr. Snowden could end up in a similar predicament, accepted by Ecuador or another country but unable to get there.

Mr. Snowden, who by his own account downloaded classified documents while working in Hawaii for the National Security Agency as an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, has said he unveiled secret American surveillance programs because he believed they violated privacy boundaries.

American officials characterize it differently. “I don’t think this man is a whistle blower,” Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “Whatever his motives are, and I take him at face value, he could’ve stayed and faced the music. I don’t think running is a noble thought.”

Some of his disclosures may have provided motivation to aid his flight in both Beijing and Moscow, where he is celebrated as a hero by the public.

Mr. Snowden told The South China Morning Post that the National Security Agency had tapped into Chinese mobile telephone companies to read millions of text messages, hacked dozens of computers at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, and other computers operated by Pacnet, a major telecommunications company with headquarters in Hong Kong and Singapore. According to The Guardian newspaper, he also provided a document showing that the United States during a conference in London in 2009 was able to gain access to the communications of Dmitri A. Medvedev, then Russia’s president and now its prime minister.

Mr. Snowden’s presence on Russian territory dealt a fresh blow to a relationship that has deteriorated sharply over the past year over issues like Syria and human rights. Yet Russian leaders seemed to be making efforts to keep his visit relatively quiet, not parading Mr. Snowden before cameras or trumpeting his arrival.

“We have nothing to do with this story,” said Dmitri S. Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin. “I am not in charge of tickets. I don’t approve or disapprove plane tickets. We’re not the proper people to address this question to.”

But Dmitri V. Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Mr. Snowden could remain in Moscow. “Russia is turning into a haven — virtually, intellectually and physically — for those who have an ax to grind with the West, who are whistle-blowers or have problems with Western authorities,” he said. “It’s the only country in the world that at this point can afford it, or thinks it can afford it.”

Ecuador, like Cuba and Venezuela, has expressed antipathy toward what it considers arrogant American policies in Latin America and demonstrated with its decision to shelter Mr. Assange that it was willing to defy Washington. Ricardo Patiño, the country’s foreign minister, said in a Twitter message that it had received an asylum request from Mr. Snowden and he later scheduled a news conference for Monday.

How long Mr. Snowden can evade arrest remained to be seen. In an interview with The Guardian earlier this month, he expressed pessimism. “You can’t come up against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and not accept the risk,” he said. “If they want to get you, over time they will.”

Peter Baker reported from Washington, and Ellen Barry from Moscow. Reporting was contributed by Scott Shane, Steven Lee Myers and Charlie Savage from Washington; Keith Bradsher from Hong Kong; Michael R. Gordon from Doha, Qatar; Rick Gladstone from New York; and Andrew Roth from Moscow.

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