June 23, 2013
N.S.A. Leaker Leaves Hong Kong on Flight to Moscow
By KEITH BRADSHER and ELLEN BARRY
HONG KONG — The Hong Kong government announced on Sunday afternoon that it had allowed the departure from its territory of Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who has acknowledged disclosing classified documents about United States government surveillance of Internet and telephone communications around the world.
The government statement said that Hong Kong had informed the United States of Mr. Snowden’s departure.
A Moscow-based reservations agent at Aeroflot, Russia’s national airline, said that Mr. Snowden was aboard flight SU213 to Moscow, with a scheduled arrival there a little after 5 p.m. Moscow time. The reservations agent said that Mr. Snowden was traveling on a one-way ticket to Moscow.
Mr. Snowden’s final destination was unclear, but there were signs that it might be beyond Moscow. The Russian Foreign Ministry said that Mr. Snowden appeared to be making a connection in Moscow to another destination, but did not say where.
Russia’s Interfax news agency, citing a “person familiar with the situation,” reported that Mr. Snowden would remain in transit at an airport in Moscow for “several hours” pending an onward flight to Cuba, and would therefore not formally cross the Russian border or be subject to detention. Someone close to Mr. Snowden later told Interfax that he planned to continue on to Caracas, Venezuela.
“He chose such a complex route in the hope that he will not be detained and he will be able to reach his final destination — Venezuela — unhindered,” the person said.
WikiLeaks, the organization that released extensive classified American diplomatic communications three years ago, said in a statement on its Twitter feed that it had “assisted Mr. Snowden’s political asylum in a democratic country, travel papers” and safe exit from Hong Kong, and said in a follow-up Twitter posting that “Mr. Snowden is currently over Russian airspace accompanied by WikiLeaks legal advisers.”
The Aeroflot agent said that Mr. Snowden was traveling with one other person, with the surname Harrison, but the agent declined to release the other traveler’s first name, saying that she did not have the authorization to do so. The closest adviser to Julian Assange, who orchestrated the release of the Wikileaks diplomatic cables three years ago, is named Sarah Harrison, prompting speculation that she was the Harrison on the flight with Mr. Snowden.
His departure from Hong Kong was a setback for the United States, which had been pressing Hong Kong to surrender him to American law enforcement officials. The Hong Kong government said on Sunday, in its first detailed statement about Mr. Snowden, that the United States had made a legal request for the issue of a provisional arrest warrant against Mr. Snowden, but that the Hong Kong government had concluded that the request “did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law.”
The statement said that Hong Kong had requested more information from the United States but had not received it. Because the government “has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr. Snowden from leaving Hong Kong,” the statement said.
The United States Consulate in Hong Kong declined to comment, referring questions to the State Department in Washington.
The statement also said that the Hong Kong government had written to the United States government to ask for clarification about media reports that Mr. Snowden had released documents showing that United States government agencies had hacked computer systems here, adding that the Hong Kong government “will continue to follow up on the matter so as to protect the legal rights of the people of Hong Kong.”
Late Saturday, a Hong Kong newspaper, The South China Morning Post, reported additional details of the N.S.A.'s spying on Hong Kong and China, apparently based on an interview with Mr. Snowden on June 12. Mr. Snowden told the newspaper that the N.S.A. had tapped into Chinese mobile phone companies to read millions of text messages, hacked dozens of computers at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University and other computers operated by Pacnet, a major telecommunications company with headquarters in Hong Kong and Singapore.
While there was no independent confirmation of the claims, all the operations described by Mr. Snowden are consistent with the N.S.A.'s aggressive monitoring of foreign communications. And the newspaper’s report could win Mr. Snowden more public support in China and Hong Kong.
In Moscow, Dmitri S. Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, said the Kremlin had not been informed of Mr. Snowden’s plans to travel to Russia.
“I don’t know if he is coming with a visa or without a visa,” Mr. Peskov said. “We are not tracing his movements. I am not sure if he is coming. If he is coming, we will wait and see.”
He said if Mr. Snowden applied for asylum in Russia, his application would be considered, adding that every application was considered.
“There is a procedure, and it will be applied,” he said. “If there is an application, it is going to be considered. If there is no application, we will do what is prescribed by law will be performed.”
Asked what the law prescribes in the latter case, he said, “You’d have to ask the police about that.”
He said Mr. Snowden’s case was not fundamentally a concern of the Russian government.
Mr. Snowden is reportedly carrying four laptop computers with a cornucopia of American intelligence documents that he downloaded to a thumb drive this spring while working in Hawaii for the National Security Agency as an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton. The British newspaper The Guardian has already disclosed a week ago that Mr. Snowden provided the newspaper with documents showing that during a conference in London in 2009, the United States was able to access the communications of Dmitri A. Medvedev, then the Russian president and now the prime minister — a disclosure that will almost certainly cause Russia to review its codes and other procedures for top leaders.
Dmitri V. Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said he considered it likely that Mr. Snowden would remain in Russia, a country that is increasingly positioning itself as a protector of people like Mr. Assange, whom Western governments wish to prosecute.
“I don’t think there is any other country that would stand up to U.S. pressure, which will be tremendous,” Mr. Trenin said. “The Chinese don’t want to spoil their relationship with the United States. Russia is sometimes embracing conflict with the U.S.”
He noted that Russia Today, the state-financed English-language cable news channel, had become a platform for figures like Mr. Assange, who are unlikely to appear through mainstream Western news outlets.
“Russia is turning into a haven — virtually, intellectually and physically — for those who have an ax to grind with the West, who are whistle-blowers or have problems with Western authorities,” he said. “It’s the only country in the world that at this point can afford it, or thinks it can afford it.” Mr. Trenin said that even if Mr. Snowden transfered in Moscow and continueed to another destination, like Havana or Caracas, Russia would still have played a central role in his flight from prosecution.
“The minute Aeroflot got the information that a certain person by the name of Snowden is about to buy a ticket, this information would be immediately transferred to the quote-unquote competent authorities,” he said. “It would be a political decision to give him a ticket or deny him a ticket.”
Mr. Snowden’s departure could limit any damage to Chinese-American relations from his sojourn here, although American officials are likely to press ahead with their inquiries into what role, if any, China may have played in his initial choice of Hong Kong.
For Hong Kong, his departure means that the city can avoid a painful tug of war over whether to surrender him, with the United States demanding him back, while nationalists in mainland China and some human rights activists in Hong Kong were calling for him to be allowed to remain.
Regina Ip, a lawmaker and former secretary of security in Hong Kong, predicted that the United States would initially be annoyed with Hong Kong for letting Mr. Snowden leave. “I think your government will be upset for a while, but I hope that they will shrug it off, because our government acted in accordance with the law,” she said. “Our government officials can breathe a sign of relief.”
But even though Mr. Snowden left Hong Kong, he may still have handed China a considerable diplomatic and public relations coup. The state-run Xinhua news agency said in a commentary late Sunday morning, before news of his flight from Hong Kong, that Mr. Snowden’s disclosures had undermined the Washington’s argument that the Chinese government was guilty of widespread computer hacking.
His claims “demonstrate that the United States, which has long been trying to play innocent as a victim of cyber attacks, has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age,” the commentary said.