Jun. 24, 2013 (TSR) – The attempt by Edward Snowden to escape the clutches of US authorities descended into farce when the 30-year-old surveillance whistleblower outpaced the world’s biggest intelligence apparatus in a round-the-world chase that was still under way on Monday.
Washington could barely disguise its fury at the manner in which Snowden was hustled out of Hong Kong, despite the US having revoked his passport and demanded his detention. The White House made it clear that China-US relations had been placed under great strain.
The whereabouts of Snowden were unclear on Monday night. Journalists who boarded a flight from Moscow to Havana, a suspected lay-over stop on a journey to Ecuador, reported that they could not see the former National Security Agency contractor on the plane, despite reports that he had checked in. Later the plane arrived in Cuba without any sign of Snowden.
Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, was sharply critical of Hong Kong’s decision to allow Snowden to leave. He said the administration did not believe the explanation that it was a “technical” decision by Hong Kong immigration authorities. “The Hong Kong authorities were advised of the status of Mr Snowden’s travel documents in plenty of time to have prohibited his travel as appropriate. We do not buy the suggestion that China could not have taken action.”
Speaking in Dehli on Monday, US secretary of state John Kerry expressed frustration that China had failed to detain Snowden. “It would be deeply troubling, obviously, if they had adequate notice, and notwithstanding that, they make the decision wilfully to ignore that and not live by the standards of the law.”
Carney said the US was working on the assumption that Snowden was still in Russia, and said the administration was urging the authorities in Moscow to turn Snowden over to the US. “We have a strong co-operative relationship with the Russians on law enforcement matters,” Carney said, in remarks that were notably less pointed than those directed at China. “We have known where he is and believe we know where he is now,” Carney said.
Amid farcical scenes at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow, an Aeroflot flight to Havana, packed with journalists, took off apparently without him. As the Airbus A330 began to roll back from the gate, Nikolai Sokolov, an Aeroflot gate employee, said: “He’s not on board.”
Around two dozen journalists settled in for the 12-hour journey on flight SU150 to Havana – a service on which no alcohol is served.
Reuters later reported that before the plane left, a white van approached and police stood by as a man in a white shirt climbed the stairs. This man could not be identified by reporters watching in the transit area.
When the plane landed in Cuba security was tight, with journalists awaiting its arrival forced to move outside the airport building. A member of the Aeroflot crew spoke briefly to reporters gathered outside Havana’s Jose Marti international airport but would not give his name. “No special people on board,” he said, smiling. “Only journalists.”
The Associated Press said two of its journalists on the flight confirmed after it arrived on Monday evening in Havana that Snowden had not been on board.
When the captain of the Aeroflot plane emerged from customs he was surrounded by photographers. He pulled out his own camera, took pictures of the photographers and said: “No Snowden, no.”
Ricardo Patino, Ecuador’s foreign minister, speaking in Hanoi, said it was considering an asylum request by Snowden, but did not know where he was. “I cannot give you information about that. We are in contact with the Russian government, but this specific information about this precise situation of Edward Snowden, we cannot give it to you right now, because we don’t have it.”
Patino read out what he said was a statement from Snowden, in which the whistleblower compared himself to WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning, currently on trial in the US for “aiding the enemy”. Snowden apparently said: “It is unlikely that I will have a fair trial or humane treatment before trial, and also I have the risk of life imprisonment or death.”
More details emerged on Monday about Snowden’s last few days in Hong Kong. Albert Ho, a solicitor who acted for the former NSA contractor in Hong Kong, told the Guardian that Snowden has asked him to make inquiries of the authorities about their intentions. “I talked to government officials on Friday seeking verification of whether they really wanted him to go, and in case they really wanted him to go, whether he would be given safe passage.”
Ho said Snowden made up his mind on Friday to leave for Moscow. “It was evident that extradition proceedings would begin quite quickly,” Ho said.
Another source with knowledge of events in Hong Kong said Snowden appeared nervous when he left, and that he was not sure whether he might be heading into a trap. “It happened very suddenly, in one or two days. Before that he was thinking of staying and fighting the case,” the source said.
“He well understood what the different situations were – and the consequences. Things were changing all the time. He knew that he was in trouble, but he didn’t panic. He understood the consequences of what he had done, making enemies of many people, but he didn’t regret it.”
The WikLeaks founder Julian Assange, in a conference call from the Ecuadorean embassy in London where he is sheltering from Swedish extradition attempts, said he knew where Snowden was. It was unclear, however, how big a part Assange and WikiLeaks had played in Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong. Assange said Wikileaks had paid for Snowden’s travel costs and lodgings since he left Hong Kong.
Asked about how Snowden had been able to travel after his US passport had been revoked, Assange said Snowden had been “supplied with a refugee document of passage by the Ecuadoran government”.
Another lawyer who acted for Snowden in Hong Kong, Robert Tibbo, asked about WikiLeaks’ role in brokering Snowden’s asylum deal: “All I can say is that this is a very complex situation.”
Hong Kong authorities, in announcing Snowden’s departure, issued a statement Sunday saying the US extradition request “failed to comply with legal requirements under Hong Kong law”.
But US officials insisted that no objection had been raised in a series of high-level diplomatic exchanges. “At no point, in all of our discussions through Friday, did the authorities in Hong Kong raise any issues regarding the sufficiency of the US’s provisional arrest request,” the Justice Department said in a statement issued in the early hours of Monday. “In light of this, we find their decision to be particularly troubling.”
Obama administration officials revealed that federal judges in the eastern district of Virginia secretly issued a warrant for Snowden’s arrest on 14 June on charges of unauthorised disclosure of classified information and theft of government property. Multiple US government agencies worked extensively behind the scenes to convince Hong Kong to arrest and extradite Snowden on a warrant also issued on 14 June. But not even a phone call on 19 June placed by attorney general Eric Holder to his Hong Kong counterpart convinced Hong Kong to comply with the US request.
In Washington on Monday, Carney denied that the US would “give up” if Snowden was allowed to leave Russia and revealed that pressure was already being put on Ecuador. “We are in touch through diplomatic and law enforcement channels with countries that might serve as a final destination or transit route,” he said.
In heated exchanges, the White House rejected comparisons with its previous support of “political dissidents” made by a Russian journalist at the briefing. “There is a big difference,” said Carney. “Snowden has been indicted with a criminal offence”.
The Russian journalist was shushed quiet by another reporter in the White House press room when attempting to ask a follow-up question.
First published in The Guardian.