Ecuador confirms asylum request from Snowden

Former NSA contractor lands in Moscow after Hong Kong refuses US arrest request

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Photograph: Reuters

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Photograph: Reuters


Ecuadorean foreign minister Ricardo Patino said today that former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden had asked Ecuador for asylum. “The Government of Ecuador has received an asylum request from Edward J. Snowden,” Mr Patino, who is on an official visit to Vietnam, said on Twitter.

Mr Patino did not give additional details. WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson confirmed that Snowden had requested asylum in Ecuador.

The anti-secrecy website had earlier said it helped Snowden find “political asylum in a democratic country”.

Ecuador has given political asylum to the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, who has spent more than a year holed up at Ecuador’s embassy in London.

An official source said the United States had revoked Snowden’s passport. It was not immediately clear how he was able to travel, and the official offered no details.

An aircraft thought to be carrying him landed in Moscow today after Hong Kong let the former US National Security Agency contractor leave the territory, despite Washington’s efforts to extradite him to face espionage charges.

Snowden, who worked for the National Security Agency, had been hiding in Hong Kong since leaking details about US surveillance activities to news media.

A spokesman for the government of Hong Kong, a former British colony which returned to China in 1997, said it had let Snowden depart because a US request to have him arrested did not comply with the law.

The United States wanted him to be extradited to face trial and is likely to be furious about his departure.

In Washington, a Justice Department official said it would seek cooperation with countries Snowden may try to go to.

The head of the National Security Agency said today he did not know why his agency failed to prevent the former NSA contractor from leaving Hawaii for Hong Kong with a trove of secrets about US surveillance programmes.

“It’s clearly an individual who’s betrayed the trust and confidence we had in him. This is an individual who is not acting, in my opinion, with noble intent,” General Keith Alexander told the ABC News This Week programme.

Snowden had been working as a contractor for the NSA in Hawaii when he fled to Hong Kong.

Asked if he knew why the NSA did not catch Snowden before he left Hawaii, Mr Alexander said: “No, I don’t.”

The WikiLeaks anti-secrecy website said it helped Snowden find “political asylum in a democratic country”.

It added in an update on Twitter that he was accompanied by diplomats and legal advisers and was travelling via a safe route for the purposes of seeking asylum.

“The WikiLeaks legal team and I are interested in preserving Mr Snowden’s rights and protecting him as a person,” former Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, legal director of WikiLeaks and lawyer for the group’s founder Julian Assange, said in a statement.

“What is being done to Mr Snowden and to Mr Julian Assange - for making or facilitating disclosures in the public interest - is an assault against the people.”

Assange has taken sanctuary in the Ecuadorean embassy in London and said last week he would not leave even if Sweden stopped pursuing sexual assault claims against him because he feared arrest on the orders of the United States.

US authorities have charged Snowden with theft of US government property, unauthorised communication of national defence information and wilful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorised person, with the latter two charges falling under the US Espionage Act.

The United States had asked Hong Kong, a special administrative region (SAR) of China, to send Snowden home.

“The US government earlier on made a request to the HKSAR government for the issue of a provisional warrant of arrest against Mr Snowden,” the Hong Kong government said in a statement.

“Since the documents provided by the US government did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law, the HKSAR government has requested the US government to provide additional information ... As the HKSAR 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.”

It did not say what further information it needed. The White House had no comment.

Although Hong Kong retains an independent legal system, and its own extradition laws, Beijing has control over its foreign affairs. Some observers see Beijing’s hand in Snowden’s sudden departure.

Iceland refused on Friday to say whether it would grant asylum to Snowden, a former employee of contractor Booz Allen Hamilton who worked at an NSA facility in Hawaii.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said earlier this month that Russia would consider granting Snowden asylum if he were to ask for it and pro-Kremlin lawmakers supported the idea, but there has been no indication he has done so.

The South China Morning Post earlier quoted Snowden offering new details about the United States’ spy activities, including accusations of US hacking of Chinese mobile telephone companies and targeting China’s Tsinghua University.

Documents previously leaked by Snowden revealed that the NSA has access to vast amounts of internet data such as emails, chat rooms and video from large companies, including Facebook and Google, under a government programme known as Prism.

China’s Xinhua news agency, referring to Snowden’s accusations about the hacking of Chinese targets, said they were “clearly troubling signs”.

It added: “They 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.”

Venezuela, Cuba and Ecuador are all members of the ALBA bloc, an alliance of leftist governments in Latin America who pride themselves on their “anti-imperialist” credentials.