The U.S. lashed out at Russia for letting former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden transit through Moscow as Ecuador considered his bid for asylum.
Secretary of State John Kerry said today it will be “deeply troubling” if Russia had advance notice of Snowden’s arrival in Moscow and “notwithstanding that, they make the decision willfully to ignore that and not live by the standards of the law.”
Snowden, who had been booked to fly from Moscow to Havana today after arriving from Hong Kong yesterday, didn’t board the flight at Sheremetyevo International Airport, said an official for state-owned OAO Aeroflot, asking not to be identified because the information is confidential.
Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group, said Snowden was “healthy and safe,” though he declined to give Snowden’s current location on a conference call with reporters today.
Snowden left Hong Kong yesterday for Moscow and intended to take safe passage through “other states” to Ecuador, Assange said. WikiLeaks legal advisers helped draft Snowden’s asylum request to Ecuador, said Assange, who also said it was possible that Snowden had drafted requests for other countries.
“We are aware of where Mr. Snowden is, he is in a safe place and his spirits are high,” Assange said. “Due to the bellicose threats from the U.S. administration, we can not elaborate” on his location.
Assange, an Australian national, has been holed up at the Ecuadorian embassy in London for the past year. Assange had exhausted options in U.K. courts to avert extradition to Sweden, where he faces questions on allegations of rape and sexual molestation, which he denies.
Ecuador will “act upon our principles” in Snowden’s case, Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino Aroca said in Hanoi today.
Snowden may have left Russia, the Interfax news service reported, citing a person familiar with the situation. That contradicted a report by the state-run news service RIA Novosti that cited an unidentified Sheremetyevo official as saying Snowden failed to board the flight after checking in and remains in the air hub’s transit zone.
With the fugitive whistle-blower’s plans unknown, Kerry urged Russia to abide by the standards of the law by expelling Snowden to the U.S. He spoke a day after New York Senator Charles Schumer, the third-ranked Democrat in the Senate, said he thought President Vladimir Putin may have known and approved of Snowden’s flight.
Kerry also took a shot at China, saying “it would be very disappointing if he was willfully allowed to board an airplane.” The top U.S. diplomat spoke at a joint press conference in New Delhi with Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid.
The decision to let Snowden leave Hong Kong may add to strains with China over cyber-espionage discussed at a meeting earlier this month between President Barack Obama and Xi Jinping.
U.S. National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said that the Obama administration had lodged “strong objections” to the authorities in Hong Kong as well as to the Chinese government after Hong Kong allowed him to leave. She said that such behavior is detrimental to U.S. bilateral relations with Hong Kong and China.
Russia, which doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the U.S., didn’t respond to U.S. pleas to expel Snowden to his homeland a month after he fled and revealed National Security Agency surveillance of Americans and foreign citizens.
Snowden arrived in Moscow yesterday on an Aeroflot flight after Hong Kong rejected a U.S. warrant to arrest him. Russia doesn’t require a transit visa of U.S. citizens passing through one international airport in the country and departing within 24 hours without leaving the customs zone, according to the U.S. State Department’s website. Those arriving without an entry visa face the risk of immediate deportation.
The Russian Foreign Ministry declined to comment. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, who has said that Russia may consider granting Snowden political asylum, wouldn’t take phone calls after earlier saying he had no information on his travel plans.
Albert Ho, a lawyer and Hong Kong legislator who said he was acting on behalf of Snowden, told reporters that the American was notified late last week by a government representative that he should leave and that he would be given safe passage.
Ho said that if Snowden’s departure were orchestrated by the Chinese government, it would have been done behind the scenes so as not to aggravate Sino-U.S. ties. “The Hong Kong government may not have had any role other than acting on instructions not to stop him at the airport,” he said.
Under the “one country-two systems” arrangement, Hong Kong has its own legal system even as China retains ultimate sovereignty and dictates its foreign policy. At the same time, Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the U.S. that dates back to 1996, the year before it returned to Chinese control.
Snowden, the former Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. employee who earlier had worked for the Central Intelligence Agency, fled to Hong Kong in May and identified himself as the source for revelations about programs to collect telephone and Internet data. He later said the U.S. had hacked Chinese and Hong Kong targets since 2009 and had tapped Chinese mobile phone companies to steal millions of text messages, according to the South China Morning Post.
He landed at Sheremetyevo yesterday evening and was booked on the Havana flight and an onward connection to Caracas, according to the Aeroflot representative. Several dozen reporters, both Russian and foreign, bought tickets on the Havana flight, which Snowden didn’t board.
“Snowden’s stopover in Moscow is just one more piece of evidence that Putin can’t pass up a chance to tweak his ‘partner’ Obama,” Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of state during the Bill Clinton administration who is now president of the Brookings Institution, said on his Twitter Inc. account.
Russia and the U.S. are already at odds after Obama’s administration said earlier this month it will supply weapons to Syria’s opposition. The two former Cold War foes, which are now arming opposing sides in Syria, are struggling to keep alive an initiative to stage a peace conference and end a conflict that has killed more than 90,000.
Vladimir Lukin, a former Russian ambassador to Washington who serves as a human-rights ombudsman, said the U.S. has no right to demand anything from Russia in this case. “We can hand him over or not hand him over,” Lukin was cited as saying by Interfax.
Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong followed a disclosure by U.S. authorities that prosecutors had filed charges against him in a Virginia federal court. The charges included government theft and espionage for Snowden’s role in disclosing the classified details of a phone-records collection program, as well as an Internet monitoring program that targeted foreign-based individuals suspected of terrorism.
“The chase is on,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said in an interview yesterday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
The Hong Kong government said the U.S. “did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law,” leaving the city “no legal basis to restrict Mr. Snowden from leaving” because it lacked the information to justify the U.S. request for a provisional warrant to detain him, according to a statement yesterday.
Snowden’s U.S. passport has been revoked, according to an American official who spoke on condition of anonymity. He faces as many as 10 years in prison on the theft count and 10 years on each of two espionage charges.
Representative Peter King, a New York Republican who serves on both the House Intelligence and Homeland Security committees, said in an interview on Bloomberg TV today that the decision to let Snowden leave Hong Kong will hurt U.S.-China ties.
“To allow him out of the country one or two days after extradition papers were served is not good faith, and for some reason Hong Kong and China wanted to let Snowden get away and this is a direct slap at the U.S.,” King said.
Snowden, in media interviews and in an Internet question-and-answer session on the Guardian’s website last week, has said he disclosed the programs because he believed the NSA and other U.S. intelligence agencies were violating the rights of U.S. citizens with the scope and reach of the information collection.
Snowden’s revelations led China to file a protest to the U.S., Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement yesterday. In an indication of China’s attitude toward Snowden’s case, China’s government-controlled Global Times newspaper said in an editorial today said his decision to blow the whistle benefited the world and shows that China must catch up in network security.
The case against Snowden is U.S. v Snowden, 13-cr-265, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia (Alexandria).
— With assistance by Diep Pham, Phil Mattingly, Henry Meyer, and David Lerman