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Former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden, 30, is on the move, reportedly attempting to gain asylum in Ecuador. But after reportedly arriving in Moscow, by Monday evening Moscow time his whereabouts were unknown.
Snowden flew from Hong Kong to Moscow Sunday, where he was reportedly met on the tarmac by Venezuelan diplomats. "He has arrived. He cannot leave the terminal, since he doesn't have a Russian visa," an Aeroflot source told Russian news agency Interfax.
U.S. authorities have charged Snowden with criminal and espionage crimes relating to his leaking information about numerous NSA surveillance programs, including Prism.
But government officials in Russia, who claimed they hadn't known Snowden was Moscow-bound, declined to detain him, saying there was no warrant for his arrest issued via Interpol. "It is not a question for us," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told The Wall Street Journal. "We don't know what his plans are and we were unaware he was coming here." Russia has no extradition treaty with the United States.
[ Is Snowden an altruistic whistle-blower, reckless criminal, outright traitor or somewhere in between? See NSA Prism Whistleblower Snowden Deserves A Medal. ]
An Interpol official told the Wall Street Journal that the United States could have issued a "red notice" for Snowden that would have served as an international arrest warrant for Interpol's 190 member countries -- except that such notices can't be issued for espionage, which is considered to be a political crime. Interpol's charter prohibits the organization from getting involved in military, political or religious matters.
While last seen in Moscow, according to a statement issued Sunday by WikiLeaks, Snowden is ultimately "bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisers from WikiLeaks."
"The Government of Ecuador has received an asylum request from Edward J. #Snowden," tweeted Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño on Sunday. He told the Associated Press Monday that the Ecuadorean government has been "analyzing it with a lot of responsibility," and said its decision would factor in "freedom of expression and with the security of citizens around the world." While the United States and Ecuador have a joint extradition treaty -- first signed in 1872 -- it doesn't apply "to crimes or offenses of a political character."
U.S. officials revealed Friday that Snowden has been charged for leaking classified information. A one-page sealed criminal complaint filed by the FBI in federal court charged Snowden with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person. Each of the charges carries up to 10 years in prison. Although the complaint was filed June 14, 2013, it wasn't made public until June 21, and an accompanying affidavit still remains under seal.
As noted, by Monday evening Moscow time, Snowden's whereabouts were unknown, after he failed to show for a Cuba-bound flight. "Edward Snowden not on Aeroflot flight to Havana. But a bunch of reporters are. (Bad news for them: it's dry)," tweeted the Guardian. Why skip the Cuba-bound flight? Legal experts said that if the plane's route took it over North American airspace, U.S. authorities could have compelled it to land. Then again, it could also have been a ruse intended to throw any pursuers off Snowden's tracks.
Regardless, an unnamed Aeroflot official told Interfax that Snowden was still in the airport's transit area. "Everything has been done to allow Snowden to spend the night peacefully at the airport's capsule hotel and to fly quietly to Cuba," according to the official.
Furthermore, Snowden may eventually take a chartered plane, since WikiLeaks has offered to fly him to a destination of his choice. "The WikiLeaks legal team and I are interested in preserving Mr. Snowden's rights and protecting him as a person," Baltasar Garzon, legal director of WikiLeaks -- and also Julian Assange's attorney -- said in a statement.
Snowden's Sunday travel from Hong Kong to Moscow followed the State Department issuing a request to "Western Hemisphere" countries through which Snowden might travel, the BBC reported. "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 U.S. state department official reportedly said.
Why wasn't Snowden detained in Hong Kong? Notably, the territory of China has a "surrender" agreement with the United States, which is different than extradition, which involves agreements between sovereign states. Furthermore, Hong Kong was informed that on June 15 the U.S issued a provisional arrest warrant for Snowden. On June 17, the government of Hong Kong acknowledged receipt of the U.S. government's request to detain Snowden, and two days later said the matter was under review.
Sunday, however, Hong Kong officials said Snowden departed "on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel." They declined to prevent him from traveling, saying that Washington's request to detain him was incomplete, and that there was no legal basis for doing so. According to the U.S. State Department, Snowden's U.S. passport was revoked Saturday, although authorities in Hong Kong may have been unaware of that revocation.
U.S. officials reacted with incredulity that Snowden hadn't been detained by Hong Kong authorities. "I had actually thought that China would see this as an opportunity to improve relations and extradite him to the United States," said Senate Intelligence committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein on CBS television. "China clearly had a role in this, in my view. I don't think this was just Hong Kong without Chinese acquiescence."
Then again, China may have been making a political statement: Snowden Sunday revealed that the NSA had been hacking into Chinese telecommunications carriers to intercept millions of subscribers' text messages.