A Russian airplane believed to be carrying former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden landed in Moscow on a flight from Hong Kong today after the city rejected an American warrant for his arrest.
Snowden, 30, was aboard an OAO Aeroflot flight and was booked on a trip to the Venezuelan capital of Caracas through Havana, according to an official at Russia’s state-run carrier who asked not to be identified because the information is confidential. He is headed to a “democratic nation” to seek asylum, accompanied by “diplomats and legal advisers from WikiLeaks,” the anti-secrecy group said in a statement.
The former contractor who leaked secret documents on U.S. surveillance wasn’t seen among other passengers exiting Sheremetyevo Airport’s Terminal F after the plane had landed at 5:03 p.m. Moscow time. A car with diplomatic license plates picked him up on the tarmac immediately after passengers began disembarking, the state-run news service RIA Novosti reported, citing a witness. Russia’s security agencies haven’t been ordered to detain Snowden, RIA said, citing an unidentified law-enforcement official. Snowden booked a room in a capsule hotel that opened last month at Sheremetyevo’s Terminal E for transit passengers as he awaits tomorrow’s flight to Cuba, according to Interfax.
The case threatens to further strain diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Russia, which has fought American efforts to extradite its citizens around the world. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, who has said that Russia may consider granting Snowden political asylum, said he had no information on his travel plans. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s press service said it was aware of reports that Snowden is transiting Moscow, declining to comment further.
The city of Hong Kong said in a statement today that he left “through a lawful and normal channel.” The documents provided by the U.S. seeking Snowden’s arrest didn’t comply with legal requirements and so there was “no legal basis to restrict Mr. Snowden from leaving Hong Kong,” it said. Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had earlier said any extradition request would be subject to Hong Kong law.
Hong Kong’s decision and China’s protests over the hacking program revealed by the former contractor underscore growing diplomatic tensions over Snowden, who flew to Hong Kong a month ago. He claimed the program involved American surveillance of Chinese and Hong Kong targets. In a commentary yesterday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported that Snowden’s revelations demonstrate that the U.S. “has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age.”
“The U.S. government will be irate with their Hong Kong counterparts,” Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong,’ said in an e-mail. He said the U.S. “may even question whether the Hong Kong government was acting in good faith pursuant to their treaty obligations.”
Snowden told the South China Morning Post this month that the U.S. had been engaged in hacking communications in Hong Kong and China since 2009. His departure followed a report in today’s Sunday Morning Post that cited Snowden as saying the U.S. National Security Agency hacked Chinese mobile-phone text messages.
Hong Kong’s government has formally requested clarification on the hacking reports and “will continue to follow up on the matter so as to protect the legal rights of the people of Hong Kong,” according to the government statement.
China is “seriously concerned about the recent disclosure of U.S.-related institutions hacking into China’s Internet,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement posted on the ministry’s website today. “We have already filed a diplomatic protest to the U.S.”
The State Department made a surrender request to have him detained under a 1996 treaty with Hong Kong. The charges against Snowden, a former Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. (BAH) employee who worked with the NSA, include theft of government property.
The U.S. will “pursue relevant law enforcement cooperation” in any country where he travels, U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre said in a statement today.
Hong Kong was asked to detain Snowden while the extradition request was being completed, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter. Charges of exposing a secret government electronic-surveillance program were filed against him June 14 in a Virginia federal court and unsealed June 21 in a cover sheet of the complaint released by the Justice Department.
Snowden, who had also previously worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, had identified himself earlier this month as the source for revelations about an NSA program to collect telephone and Internet data. Snowden’s leaks revealed how the NSA collects data under a U.S. government program code-named Prism.
Hong Kong’s decision may allow it to avoid a confrontation with China, which took back sovereignty of the city from Britain in 1997, and can intervene in extraditions from the city if they relate to China’s defense or foreign affairs as well as the U.S.
“It’s a neat option from the Hong Kong government’s point of view but there are also consequences,” Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who specializes in Chinese politics, said in a phone interview. “The decision risks being judged as a pretext and not respecting the rule of law.’”
Snowden said private text messages of millions of Chinese mobile-phone company subscribers have been intercepted by the NSA, the Post reported today, citing data provided by Snowden in a June 12 interview. The agency also attacked Tsinghua University’s server and accessed computers at the Hong Kong headquarters of Pacnet Ltd., which owns one of the most extensive fiber-optic submarine cable networks in the region, the Post cited Snowden as saying.
U.S. investigators are probing how Snowden copied highly classified materials and disseminated them to two news outlets. The documents disclosed the NSA’s operation to obtain records of phone calls by Americans and to spy on Internet communications.
Snowden fled to Hong Kong May 20 before revealing himself as the source of the leak. While in the city, Snowden added to the disclosures he made to the Washington Post and U.K.-based Guardian, providing information that the U.S. intercepted secret communications by then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev when he attended a Group of 20 Summit in London in 2009 and monitored the phone calls and computers of other foreign leaders at the meeting.
The Guardian on June 21 reported Snowden showed documents disclosing that Britain’s GCHQ security agency was tapping a global network of phone and Internet cables and sharing the information with the NSA.
Snowden’s best option for avoiding prosecution is finding a country that refuses to extradite him, according to Mark Zaid, a national security lawyer in Washington. If brought back to the U.S., Snowden should try to negotiate a plea rather than take his chances with a trial, he said.
“He has erased any meaningful legal defense he could have by his own admissions,” Zaid said in a phone interview. “He freely admitted he’s the one who did it.”
The Washington Post and the Guardian, citing other classified documents, reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the NSA under the Prism program had tapped into the central servers of nine U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs.
The case is U.S. v Snowden, 13-cr-265, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia (Alexandria).
To contact the reporters on this story: Eleni Himaras in Hong Kong at firstname.lastname@example.org; Yuliya Fedorinova in Moscow at email@example.com; Ekaterina Shatalova in Moscow at firstname.lastname@example.org