By Jeff Mason and Lidia Kelly, WASHINGTON-MOSCOW (Reuters): The United States on Monday increased pressure on Russia to hand over Edward Snowden, the American charged with disclosing secret U.S. surveillance programs, and said it believed he was still in Moscow despite earlier reports he was leaving for Cuba.
The whereabouts of Snowden, until recently a contractor with the U.S. National Security Agency, remained a mystery. He had flown to Moscow after being allowed to leave Hong Kong on Sunday despite Washington asking the Chinese territory to detain him pending his possible extradition on espionage charges.
White House spokesman Jay Carney defended the administration’s attempts to bring Snowden into U.S. custody and instead blamed China for assisting in his release from Hong Kong. He said it would damage U.S. China relations.
Sources at the Russian airline Aeroflot had said he would be aboard a flight to Havana on Monday morning, but reporters who took the flight said another person occupied the seat that had been set aside for him, 17A, and he had not been seen.
“He didn’t take the flight (to Havana),” a source at Russia’s national airline Aeroflot told Reuters.
However, before the plane left for Cuba, a white van for VIPs approached it on the tarmac. Police stood by as a single man in a white shirt climbed the stairs on to the plane soon afterwards but he could not be identified by reporters watching in the transit area. It was not clear whether the plane had a section in which Snowden could have been concealed.
Julian Assange, the founder of anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks which is assisting Snowden, said the 30-year-old had fled to Moscow en route to Ecuador and was in good health in a “safe place” but did not say where he was now.
Ecuador, like Cuba and Venezuela, is a member of the ALBA bloc, an alliance of leftist governments in Latin America that pride themselves on their “anti-imperialist” credentials. The Quito government has been sheltering Assange at its London embassy for the past year.
Washington was stung by the defiance from Russia, with which President Barack Obama has sought improved relations, and China’s apparent compliance in allowing Snowden to leave Hong Kong. Obama has met the leaders of the two major powers in recent months.
Carney, speaking several hours after the Moscow-Havana flight took off, said it was the U.S. assumption that Snowden was still in Russia and pressed Russia to use all options to expel him to the United States.
The U.S. State Department said discussions were underway with Russian government officials. “Given our intensified cooperation working with Russia on law enforcement matters … we hope that the Russian government will look at all available options to return Mr. Snowden back to the U.S. to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged,” spokesman Patrick Ventrell said.
Carney slammed those countries which Snowden had chosen to seek protection, saying his choice belied his claim that he was focused on supporting transparency, freedom of the press and individuals’ rights.
“If his passion here is for press freedom and freedom of the Internet and the like, he has chosen unlikely protectors,” Carney said.
He sharply criticized Hong Kong. “This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant, and that decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship,” he said.
Taking the higher ground, after China itself has been accused of hacking computers abroad, the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed “grave concern” over Snowden’s allegations that the United States had hacked computers in China. It said it had taken up the issue with Washington.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said during a visit to India that it would be “deeply troubling” if Moscow defied the United States over Snowden, and said the fugitive “places himself above the law, having betrayed his country”.
But the Russian government ignored the appeal and President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary denied any knowledge of Snowden’s movements. Asked if Snowden had spoken to the Russian authorities, Dmitry Peskov said: “Overall, we have no information about him.”
He declined comment on the expulsion request but other Russian officials said Moscow had no obligation to cooperate with Washington, after it passed legislation to impose visa bans and asset freezes on Russians accused of violating human rights.
The Russian news agency Interfax quoted an unnamed source as saying Moscow could not arrest or deport Snowden because he had not entered Russian territory – suggesting he had remained in the transit area at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.
“Why should the United States expect restraint and understanding from Russia?” said Alexei Pushkov, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of parliament.
Putin has missed few chances to champion public figures who challenge Western governments and to portray Washington as an overzealous global policeman. But Russian leaders have not paraded Snowden before cameras or trumpeted his arrival.
Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, said during a trip to Vietnam that Quito would take into account a U.S. request about Snowden and is in “respectful” contact with Russia about him. He gave no details of the U.S. request.
“We will consider the position of the U.S. government and we will take a decision in due course in line with the (Ecuadorean) constitution, the laws, international politics and sovereignty,” Patino told a news conference in Hanoi.
Some Russians have praised Snowden’s revelations. Others fear a new chill in relations with the United States.
WikiLeaks said Snowden was supplied with a refugee document of passage by Ecuador and that a British legal researcher working for the anti-secrecy group had accompanied him.
Snowden, who had worked at a U.S. National Security Agency facility in Hawaii, had been hiding in Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to China in 1997, since leaking details about secret U.S. surveillance programs to news media.
He said in an interview published by the South China Morning Post on Monday that he took a job at U.S. contractor Booz Allen Hamilton deliberately to gain access to details of the NSA’s surveillance programs.
Snowden, who worked for the company for about three months at a facility in Hawaii, told the newspaper on June 12 that he gained the job as a systems administrator because of the access it afforded him.
“My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked,” Snowden said, according to the article. “That is why I accepted that position about three months ago.”
Booz Allen Hamilton fired Snowden on June 10, one day after Snowden went public about his role in revealing details of the NSA programs in a video posted by the Guardian. James Fisher, a spokesman for Booz Allen Hamilton, said the company had no comment about Snowden’s latest comments.
Snowden has been charged with theft of federal government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person. The last two charges fall under the U.S. Espionage Act.
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