“Snowden on the Run”

The Wall Street Journal on June 24, 2013 released the following:

By DEVLIN BARRETT in Washington, D.C., and TE-PING CHEN in Hong Kong

“A global cat-and-mouse game involving the admitted leaker of National Security Agency secrets exploded into a diplomatic scramble, as U.S. authorities sought to catch Edward Snowden before he reached his next goal: political asylum in Ecuador.

Mr. Snowden’s unexpected Sunday flight to Moscow from Hong Kong exposed the apparent limits of America’s diplomatic and intelligence-gathering reach. At a time when Mr. Snowden has been the subject of intense interest from U.S. authorities, they were unable to prevent his departure from a jurisdiction generally viewed as friendly to U.S. extradition requests.

Washington had requested Hong Kong arrest Mr. Snowden in anticipation of extradition, and officials including Attorney General Eric Holder had reached out to authorities in the city to urge that request be honored, a U.S. official said. But it wasn’t until Mr. Snowden had left for Moscow that the Americans had found out that Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, viewed their request as “insufficient,” the official said.

According to people familiar with the case, the U.S. never asked Interpol, the international police agency, to issue a “red notice” for Mr. Snowden, which would have triggered alerts at airports to delay, if not stop outright, his departure.

The White House early Monday said it expects the Russian government to “look at all options available” to expel Mr. Snowden to the U.S. to face charges. The White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the U.S. also registered strong objections to authorities in Hong Kong and China through diplomatic channels over the decision to let Mr. Snowden flee.

Ecuador said it had received a request for asylum from Mr. Snowden, but that no decision had been reached.

The 30-year-old Mr. Snowden, who until May was a government contractor working at an NSA facility in Hawaii, has been hailed as a hero by some civil libertarians on the right and left after he said he disclosed the secrets to prompt a public debate about the NSA’s surveillance practices. But he has begun to draw harsh bipartisan criticism for involvement with countries such as China, Russia and Ecuador, which are at odds with the U.S. on many issues, and with WikiLeaks, a group that has published U.S. secrets in the past. China and Russia also drew barbs from U.S. lawmakers Sunday, raising the prospect of new strains in America’s relations with key powers at a time when President Barack Obama is seeking their help dealing with a host of foreign-policy concerns in places such as Syria, Iran and North Korea.

The Chinese government is almost certain to have approved Hong Kong’s decision to let Mr. Snowden leave because it pertains to national security and foreign relations, according to diplomats, analysts and Hong Kong legislators.

News of Mr. Snowden’s departure from Hong Kong fueled conflicting reports during the day of where he might be headed, and it sent a horde of journalists rushing to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport to await his expected arrival at a Soviet-era terminal.

No images surfaced of Mr. Snowden exiting Aeroflot flight 213 from Hong Kong. But an airport spokeswoman confirmed late Sunday that he was in the airport’s “transit zone”—where passengers await connecting flights to other countries. Passengers arriving in Moscow from abroad don’t need to have a Russian visa if they are booked on a connecting flight and stay within that zone.

Passengers on Mr. Snowden’s reported flight from Hong Kong said those on board the plane disembarked via a staircase on the runway rather than via a passenger walkway, which is unusual for big international arrivals. Two business-class passengers said they saw cars meet the plane, one of them a black-windowed, black sedan.

Russian media later reported that Mr. Snowden underwent a medical exam and was taken to a hotel inside the transit area.

The day was marked by a flurry of diplomatic and law-enforcement maneuvering, with U.S. authorities saying they had revoked Mr. Snowden’s passport and asking other countries not to harbor him. State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said Mr. Snowden “should not be allowed to proceed in any further international travel, other than is necessary to return him to the United States.”

Mr. Obama was getting updates from national-security aides on Mr. Snowden’s travels, according to a senior administration official.

Mr. Snowden had traveled to Hong Kong from Hawaii on May 20, taking with him secret information detailing the government’s mass collection of Americans’ telephone-call records and its Internet surveillance program called Prism. That information formed the basis of articles in the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers that spurred intense public debate about U.S. surveillance methods.

A person familiar with Mr. Snowden’s case said his decision to get on a flight to Moscow was “very sudden,” made only in the day before departing. The decision was made in consultation with WikiLeaks, which encouraged Mr. Snowden to leave the city after communicating with others about his options abroad, the person said.

“He is very independent, but also very willing to listen to advice,” the person said, adding that Mr. Snowden was concerned that any further delay would result in his detainment by Hong Kong authorities. In part, Mr. Snowden’s determination to leave Hong Kong was based on the fear of losing access to the Internet—his vital link to the rest of the world—should he be detained, the person said. In part, Mr. Snowden’s determination to leave Hong Kong was based on the fear of losing access to the Internet—his vital link to the rest of the world—should he be detained, the person said.

At no point was Mr. Snowden questioned or detained by Hong Kong authorities, the person said, and neither was he told by local authorities to leave the city. The decision to get on a plane to Moscow was made independently by Mr. Snowden, the person said: “It seemed that time was of the essence.”

One American official said the U.S. had privately requested on June 15 that Hong Kong authorities provisionally arrest Mr. Snowden in anticipation of extradition. Two days later, Hong Kong authorities acknowledged receiving the request and said the matter was under review, the U.S. official said. This past Friday, Hong Kong asked for additional details about the charges and the evidence, according to the official. U.S. officials say they were responding to that request when they learned Hong Kong had allowed him to leave.

Jacques Semmelman, an extradition lawyer in New York, said U.S. officials “were double-crossed” by Hong Kong. “I find it inconceivable that the U.S. didn’t meet the standard, because the standard is very easy to meet,” he said.

A Hong Kong government spokesman Monday echoed a previous statement from the government, saying that, “according to the law, any persons who lawfully stay in Hong Kong, unless prohibited by law, shall be free to leave Hong Kong.”

Meanwhile, observers in Hong Kong said a prolonged legal battle over Mr. Snowden’s extradition in Hong Kong could have heightened U.S. pressure on Beijing and left Chinese authorities with few good choices.

“It’s good for Hong Kong and Beijing to get rid of this hot potato,” said James Sung, political scientist at City University of Hong Kong, adding that Mr. Snowden’s departure is a “relief for both Hong Kong and Beijing.”

The departure drew mixed reviews among the city’s lawmakers. “He has abandoned Hong Kong and that’s somewhat sad,” said legislator Claudia Mo. “Personally, I think Snowden owes Hong Kong people an explanation.” Ms. Mo was among the hundreds who rallied to support Mr. Snowden earlier this month, calling on Hong Kong to resist any U.S. request for his surrender.

“For Hong Kong, this was the best option,” said Regina Ip, the city’s former security secretary and a current legislator. She added that the city might not have had any other choice.

WikiLeaks, best known for publicizing a trove of secret U.S. government cables provided by Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, said it was helping Mr. Snowden on his travel from Hong Kong to Russia and Ecuador. Whether Mr. Snowden will make it to South America was unclear late Sunday. The lack of a valid passport isn’t in itself enough to force the Russians to turn Mr. Snowden over to U.S. authorities.

Russia’s Interfax News Agency said Mr. Snowden was booked on a flight from Moscow to Cuba. There are no direct flights from Moscow to Ecuador.

Previously, Russian officials had said they would consider an asylum request from Mr. Snowden, if he made one.

Last year, Ecuador granted asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Mr. Snowden has been charged in a criminal complaint with theft of U.S. government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information. The last two charges are espionage-related, which complicated the matter.

The U.S. could have sought an Interpol red notice—the equivalent of an arrest warrant sent to its 190 member countries. But under Interpol guidelines, espionage charges are considered political, and the organization isn’t permitted to get involved in a matter of a military, political, racial or religious nature, an Interpol official said.

Douglas McNabb, a veteran extradition lawyer based in Washington, D.C., said if officials had charged Mr. Snowden initially with just the theft of government property, they could have tied Mr. Snowden down in Hong Kong, while U.S. prosecutors built a stronger case and negotiated with local authorities over possible additional charges.

“They could have gone the safe route, charged him with the theft, and then once you have him detained, they could then indict him,” said Mr. McNabb. “I think somebody dropped the ball. I think it was poorly done.”

A U.S. official said they didn’t seek a red notice on Mr. Snowden because the government was already negotiating with Hong Kong, and the charges had been sealed.

On a day when U.S. authorities were forced to react to the high-profile gamesmanship of Mr. Snowden, politicians in the U.S. could do little but vent their frustration at Russia and China.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said Mr. Snowden’s choice of countries undercuts his claims to be defending privacy and freedom.

“The freedom trail is not exactly China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela. So I hope we’ll chase him to the ends of the earth, bring him to justice and let the Russians know there will be consequences if they harbor this guy,” Mr. Graham told Fox News.

Nanda Chitre, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department, said the agency will “pursue relevant law enforcement cooperation with other countries where Mr. Snowden may be attempting to travel.””


Douglas McNabb – McNabb Associates, P.C.’s
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The author of this blog is Douglas C. McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.


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