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Irony: Edward Snowden chooses havens that repress Internet freedoms

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National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, who apparently remained holed up in a Moscow airport transit lounge Monday night, has chosen an itinerary taking him to sanctuary in nations restricting the very Internet and press freedoms he says he stands for, U.S. officials said.

Criticism rose as Mr. Snowden, who was allowed to leave Hong Kong despite a pending extradition request from the U.S., disappeared from public view in Moscow. He failed to take two seats booked in his name on a Russian AeroFlot flight Monday to Havana, from where he was expected to fly to Quito, the capital of Ecuador.

Ecuador's foreign minister confirmed that Mr. Snowden applied for political asylum from the leftist government of President Rafael Correa.

Mr. Snowden's supporters denied that he had been interviewed by Chinese authorities, and Russian officials said that, as a transit passenger, he had not entered their country.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said U.S. intelligence officials were working on the assumption that any information he took from the NSA already had been compromised.

Snowden's route

Secretary of State John F. Kerry noted Monday that there was "no small irony" in the route taken by Mr. Snowden — a self-proclaimed defender of Internet rights and freedom of expression.

"I wonder if Mr. Snowden chose China and Russia as assistants in his flight from justice because they're such powerful bastions of Internet freedom?" Mr. Kerry asked reporters in India.

"But evidently, [Mr. Snowden] places himself above the law, having betrayed his country with respect to the violation of his oath," Mr. Kerry said.

Russia and China are infamous for limiting Internet freedoms, according to a global assessment compiled annually by one of Washington's leading nonprofit advocacy rights groups.

Freedom House's annual Freedom on the Net report for last year rated Russia's record on the Web as "partly free" and China's as "not free."

China was one of only two nations surveyed that employed all nine categories of Internet censorship that Freedom House cataloged. The other country was Iran.

Ecuador, one of the countries to which Mr. Snowden applied for asylum, adopted a communications law that restricts journalists' freedom of expression, according to Human Rights Watch.

The legislation, passed by the Ecuadorean National Assembly on June 14, "seriously undermines free speech ... [and] includes overly broad language that will limit the free expression of journalists and media outlets," the group said in a statement last week.

Human Rights Watch Americas Director Jose Miguel Vivanco called the law "yet another effort by President Correa to go after the independent media."

He said "provisions for censorship and criminal prosecutions of journalists are clear attempts to silence criticism."

Journalist weighs in

Glenn Greenwald, the journalist at The Guardian to whom Mr. Snowden leaked some of the classified documents he stole from the NSA, defended the self-proclaimed whistleblower's itinerary.

"He's not searching for political nirvana; he's searching for a place where he can be safe and remain free and participate in the debate," he told CNN.

Mr. Greenwald said Mr. Snowden could rely on few countries that could stand up to the United States.

"He needs to find a place that is both able and willing to grant him asylum and shield him from [U.S.] prosecution. There aren't many places on the Earth willing or able to do that," Mr. Greenwald said.

Julian Assange, the founder of the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, said Monday that the group was assisting Mr. Snowden at his request.

Mr. Assange has been granted asylum by Ecuador and is sheltering in its embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faces questioning on sex charges.

He told reporters on a conference call that Mr. Snowden, who turned 30 on Friday, is being accompanied by WikiLeaks researcher Sarah Harrison and was "safe," but declined to say where he was.

Mr. Assange reportedly is facing a grand jury probe over his role in the publication by WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of State Department and military documents leaked by Pfc. Bradley Manning. Mr. Assange has said the secret probe is being carried out by U.S. prosecutors from the Eastern District of Virginia, the same federal jurisdiction where Mr. Snowden was indicted under seal on June 14.

The indictment was unsealed late Friday, revealing that the self-proclaimed whistleblower faced felony charges under the 1917 Espionage Act punishable by life imprisonment.

Headed to Ecuador?

Mr. Snowden has applied to Iceland and other countries for asylum as well, Mr. Assange said, but is traveling on "a refugee document of passage by the Ecuadorean government" because the U.S. revoked his passport before his abrupt departure Sunday from Hong Kong.

Mr. Assange was asked about reports that Mr. Snowden had been interviewed by Chinese authorities before leaving the quasi-autonomous Chinese city-state. "As far as I am aware, that is false," he said.

Reports from Moscow said Russian authorities were claiming Mr. Snowden, as a transit passenger, had not entered the country and that they had no grounds to arrest him.

Nonetheless, Mr. Carney said, "it's safe to assume, in the damage assessment [being conducted by U.S. intelligence], that any information that [Mr. Snowden] might have provided publicly, we would expect to be compromised."

Administration officials made clear that they want Russian cooperation and are asking for it at several levels of government.

"We expect the Russian government to look at all options available to expel Mr. Snowden back to the U.S. to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged," said White House spokeswoman Caitlin M. Hayden.

A State Department official, speaking on background, said FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III had spoken personally with his counterpart at the Russian domestic intelligence agency, the FSB, about the importance of Mr. Snowden's return to the United States.

President Obama has in recent months pushed a "reset" policy with Russia, looking for progress on nuclear weapons reductions that he has not been able to find on Syria or other key bilateral issues.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, warned the Russian ambassador Monday that the case was "an important test of the 'reset' in relations between our two countries."

"If our two nations are to have a constructive relationship moving forward, Russian cooperation in this matter is essential," he wrote.

Mr. Carney said authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing allowed Mr. Snowden to leave even though his passport had been revoked, and that the U.S. had filed an extradition warrant and sought his arrest.

"We are just not buying that this was a technical decision by a Hong Kong immigration official," he said.

"The Hong Kong authorities were advised of the status of Mr. Snowden's travel documents in plenty of time to have prohibited his travel as appropriate," he said.

"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.

Dave Boyer and Guy Taylor contributed to this report.

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About the Author
Shaun Waterman

Shaun Waterman

Shaun Waterman is an award-winning reporter for The Washington Times, covering foreign affairs, defense and cybersecurity. He was a senior editor and correspondent for United Press International for nearly a decade, and has covered the Department of Homeland Security since 2003. His reporting on the Sept. 11 Commission and the tortuous process by which some of its recommendations finally became ...

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