The intelligence analyst who faces espionage charges for leaking details of U.S. surveillance programs on Sunday fled Hong Kong to seek asylum in Ecuador, flouting U.S. authorities in dramatic fashion and sparking a new debate over what he represents – a traitor willing to engage with countries hostile to the U.S. or a hero for personal privacy rights.
Edward Snowden, a 30-year-old who has pledged to spread the truth about U.S. collection of phone records and Internet activity, received help in his travels from Wikileaks, the organization that facilitates the publication of classified information. The final Wikileaks Twitter announcement about Snowden’s location said he was on his way to Ecuador after reports that he left Hong Kong for Moscow and then landed in a new haven from U.S. authorities.
Ecuador is the same country where Wikileaks founder Julian Assange sought refuge from U.S. prosecutors in its London embassy for more than a year so he would not be extradited to Sweden for questioning in a sexual assault case.
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricard Patino also used Twitter to announce his government had received an asylum request from Snowden, who reportedly landed in Moscow and planned to travel to South American via Cuba, the Associated Press reported, citing Russian news sources.
Snowden’s international hopscotching through a short list of nation’s who are outright hostile or less than friendly to the United States had lawmakers on both sides of the aisle questioning his motives. At the time it was not known exactly where Snowden would end up.
“The freedom trail is not exactly China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Wikileaks said Sunday afternoon that Snowden was headed to the South American country of Ecuador “via a safe route for the purposes of asylum and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from Wikileaks.”
Snowden, who leaked top-secret details of sweeping U.S. Surveillance programs to The Guardian newspaper, departed Hong Kong on Sunday “through a lawful and normal channel,” the Hong Kong government said.
Wikileaks announced their assistance on Twitter Sunday morning, noting that Snowden’s political asylum in a democratic country, travel papers (and) safe exit from Hong Kong.”
Baltasar Garzon, a former Spanish judge and Wikileaks’ leagl director, said in a statement Sunday that the treatment of Snowden Has been “an assault against the people,” CNN reported.
“The Wikileaks legal team and I are interested in preserving Mr. Snowden’s rights and protecting him as a person,” Garzon said.
Snowden left for Moscow after the U.S. government called on Hong Kong to detain Snowden on a provisional arrest warrant. That news came shortly after U.S. prosecutors on Friday unsealed a complaint against Snowden that charged him with espionage, theft and conversion of government property.
The now famous 30-year-old computer analyst absconded to Honk Kong last month from a NSA facility in Hawaii where he stole a trove of highly classified documents he had access to while working as a systems analyst for Booz Allen Hamilton.
Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre said Sunday that Hong Kong authorities had informed U.S. officials of Snowden’s departure, although she didn’t say whether they told U.S. officials he was headed to Russia.
“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,” she told CNN.
Hong Kong officials took issue with the way the U.S. wrote the provisional arrest warrant, saying that it did not fully comply with legal requirements under Hong Kong law.
“The HKSAR government has requested the U.S. government to provide additional information,” Hong Kong officials said. Because of these lapses, the officials said “there is no legal basis to restrict Mr. Snowden from leaving Hong Kong.”
The Justice Department disputed Hong Kong’s assertion.
“They came back to us with a few questions late Friday, and we were in the process of answering those questions,” the official said. “We believe we were meeting those requirements. As far as the relationship with Hong Kong goes, this raises questions and we will continue to discuss with authorities there.”
Hong Kong’s lack of cooperation with the U.S. government came after Snowden told them that U.S. intelligence authorities have been hacking computer networks in Hong Kong and mainland China for years, according to a report in the China Morning Post.