NSA leaker Edward Snowden has asked for political asylum in Ecuador after fleeing Hong Kong for Russia, the Ecuador Foreign Ministry says.
Snowden was permitted to leave Hong Kong despite an extradition request that he be returned to the United States to face charges of espionage. Russia's state ITAR-Tass news agency said he had landed in Moscow.
Russian news site RT reported that Snowden was to leave Moscow on Monday for Havana, and then move on to Caracas, Venezuela. But the Ecuador ministry and Wikileaks, a website that divulges state secrets and is assisting Snowden, said he will try to get to Ecuador instead.
Snowden was allowed to leave Hong Kong just hours after Obama administration officials announced they filed a formal petition with Chinese authorities seeking Snowden's arrest and return to the United States.
"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," US Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers said the US government must exhaust all legal options to get Snowden back.
"Every one of those nations is hostile to the United States," Rogers, R-Mich., said on NBC's Meet the Press.
"When you think about what he says he wants and what his actions are, it defies logic," said Rogers, who repeated his assertion that Snowden's leaks of secret government surveillance programs had damaged U.S. national security.
The Hong Kong government said Snowden, 30, was allowed to fly out "on his own accord" because the U.S. extradition request announced Saturday did not fully comply with Hong Kong law.
RT reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin was unaware of Snowden's plans to fly to Moscow.
Interfax reported that Snowden has not been able to leave the airport because he does not have a Russian visa. He was accompanied by Wikileaks representative Sarah Harrison, a British citizen who does have a Russian visa, according to Interfax.
"(Snowden) is bound for a democratic nation via a safe route for the purposes of asylum,and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisers from WikiLeaks," the group said in a statement.
Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, told Australian Sydney Morning Herald that Snowden will be met by "diplomats from the country that will be his ultimate destination" in the airport, who'll accompany him on a further flight to his destination. Assange is hiding in the Ecuadorean embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden on charges of rape. Wikileaks said it had helped him exit Hong Kong.
Hong Kong said in a statement that it allowed Snowden to leave because documents provided by the US government for extradition did not "fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law," and the US had not yet provided the additional information requested to consider the US request for a provisional arrest warrant.
After the announcement Saturday of the extradition request, an Obama administration official told USA TODAY that Hong Kong risked harming relations with the two sides if it did not comply with its legal obligations. Regina Ip, a legislator and Cabinet member in Hong Kong, said, "I don't think we need to be concerned about any consequences."
Snowden has been the focus of a criminal investigation since he acknowledged earlier this month that he was the source of materials detailing surveillance programs that collected telephone records for millions of Americans and a separate operation that targeted the Internet communications of non-citizens abroad who were suspected of terrorist connections.
He has been charged in U.S. federal court with espionage.
The South China Morning Post meanwhile reported that Snowden had provided information to show that the NSA had hacked into the Hong Kong system of Pacnet, which runs undersea telecommunications cables around the Pacific, and into 63 computers and servers at Tsinghua University in Beijing, one of China's most elite schools.
"The NSA does all kinds of things like hack Chinese cellphone companies to steal all of your SMS data," Hong Kong legislator Leung Kwok Hung said.
Snowden, who was employed by Booz Allen Hamilton as an NSA systems analyst in Hawaii, fled to the Chinese territory of Hong Kong last month with top-secret documents and court orders on government surveillance operations.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said she was not surprised that Snowden would seek safe haven in Cuba or Venezuela, "two regimes that have a longstanding history of giving refuge to fugitives from U.S. law."
"The cruel irony is that there are no press freedoms in either Cuba or Venezuela, yet Snowden who supposedly stands for transparency in government seeks refuge in police states like these two countries," she said.
- USA Today