HONG KONG (AP) — A former National Security Agency contractor wanted by the United States for revealing highly classified surveillance programs was allowed to leave for a “third country” because a U.S. extradition request did not fully comply with Hong Kong law, the territory’s government said Sunday.
Hong Kong’s government did not identify the country, but the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said in a statement that Edward Snowden is “bound for the Republic of Ecuador via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from WikiLeaks.”
Mr. Snowden, who was in hiding in Hong Kong for several weeks after he revealed information on the highly classified spy programs, earlier talked of seeking asylum in Iceland.
However, Russia’s ITAR-Tass news agency cited an unidentified Aeroflot official as saying Mr. Snowden would fly from Moscow to Cuba on Monday and then on to Caracas, Venezuela. WikiLeaks earlier tweeted that Mr. Snowden was “over Russian air space.”
The White House had no immediate comment about Mr. Snowden’s departure, which came a day after the United States made a formal request for his extradition and gave a pointed warning to Hong Kong against delaying the process of returning him to face trial in the U.S.
The Hong Kong government said in a statement that Mr. Snowden left “on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel.”
It acknowledged the U.S. extradition request but said U.S. documentation did not “fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law.” It said additional information was requested from Washington, but since the Hong Kong 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 Hong Kong had informed the U.S. of Mr. Snowden’s departure. It added that it wanted more information about alleged hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong by U.S. government agencies which Mr. Snowden had revealed.
WikiLeaks said it was providing legal help to Mr. Snowden at his request and that he was being escorted by diplomats and legal advisers from the group. Its founder, Julian Assange, who has spent a year inside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden to face questioning about sex crime allegations, told the Sydney Morning Herald that his organization is in a position to help because it has expertise in international asylum and extradition law.
Mr. Snowden’s departure eliminates a possible fight between Washington and Beijing at a time when China is trying to deflect U.S. accusations that it carries out extensive surveillance of American government and commercial operations. Hong Kong, a former British colony, has a high degree of autonomy and is granted rights and freedoms not seen on mainland China, but under the city’s miniconstitution, Beijing is allowed to intervene in matters involving defense and diplomatic affairs.
Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the U.S., but the document has some exceptions, including for crimes deemed political.
The Obama administration on Saturday warned Hong Kong against delaying Mr. Snowden’s extradition, with White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon saying in an interview with CBS News, “Hong Kong has been a historically good partner of the United States in law enforcement matters, and we expect them to comply with the treaty in this case.”
Mr. Snowden’s departure came as the South China Morning Post released new allegations from Mr. Snowden that U.S. hacking targets in China included the nation’s cellphone companies and two universities hosting extensive Internet traffic hubs.
He told the newspaper that “the NSA does all kinds of things like hack Chinese cellphone companies to steal all of your SMS data.” It added that Mr. Snowden said he had documents to support the hacking allegations, but the report did not identify the documents. It said he spoke to the newspaper in a June 12 interview.
With a population of more than 1.3 billion, China has massive cellphone companies. China Mobile is the world’s largest mobile network carrier with 735 million subscribers, followed by China Unicom with 258 million users and China Telecom with 172 million users.