The former National Security Agency contractor and CIA technician fled Hong Kong and arrived at the Moscow airport, where he planned to spend the night before boarding an Aeroflot flight to Cuba. Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said his government received an asylum request from Snowden, and the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said they would help him.
“He goes to the very countries that have, at best, very tense relationships with the United States and do not value press freedoms whatsoever,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), adding that she feared Snowden would trade more U.S. secrets for asylum.
“This is not going to play out well for the national security interests of the United States,” she added.
The move left the U.S. with limited options as Snowden’s itinerary took him on a tour of what many see as anti-American capitals. Ecuador in particular has rejected the United States’ previous efforts at cooperation, and has been helping WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange avoid prosecution by allowing him to stay at its embassy in London.
Snowden helped The Guardian and The Washington Post to disclose U.S. surveillance programs that collects vast amounts of phone records and online data in the name of foreign intelligence, but often sweeping up information on American citizens. Officials have the ability to collect phone and Internet information broadly but need a warrant to examine specific cases where they believe terrorism is involved.
Snowden has been in hiding for several days in Hong Kong, a former British colony with a high degree of autonomy from mainland China. The United States formally sought Snowden’s extradition from Hong Kong but was rebuffed; Hong Kong officials said the U.S. request did not fully comply with their laws.
In a statement, the Justice Department said it would “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.”
The White House would only say that President Barack Obama had been briefed on the developments by his national security advisers.
Russia’s state ITAR-Tass news agency and Interfax cited an unnamed Aeroflot airline official as saying Snowden was on the plane that landed Sunday afternoon in Moscow. The report said he intended to fly to Cuba today and then on to Caracas, Venezuela.