The computer technician who faces criminal charges for leaking details of U.S. spying programs left Hong Kong on Sunday to seek asylum in Ecuador, reigniting debate over his conflicted status as either a champion for personal privacy or a traitor who might curry favor with hostile nations.
Edward Snowden, a 30-year-old who had top-secret clearance and disclosed the government’s collection of phone records and a program that tracks some foreigners’ Internet activity, revealed his plans through a statement from WikiLeaks — founded by leaker Julian Assange — after reports he departed the Chinese city bound for Moscow and then a new haven from American authorities seeking his arrest.
Lawmakers from both political parties cried foul Sunday over the short list of Mr. Snowden’s reported destinations, which included Latin American nations with unfriendly attitudes toward Washington.
“The freedom trail is not exactly China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, told “Fox News Sunday.”
But WikiLeaks revealed by afternoon that Mr. Snowden was bound for Ecuador, a small nation on the Pacific that has sheltered Mr. Assange in its London embassy for more than a year, so he would not be extradited to Sweden for questioning in a sexual assault case.
The organization said Mr. Snowden was bound for the South American country “via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from WikiLeaks.”
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino confirmed on Twitter that his government had received an asylum request from Mr. Snowden, who landed in Moscow on Sunday and planned to travel to South America through Cuba, The Associated Press reported, citing Russian news agencies.
When Mr. Snowden passed information about secret surveillance tactics this month to The Guardian newspaper, it immediately raised questions about the boundaries between privacy and national security. Some praised him, while others decried him as a traitor who stole classified information and fled from his private contractor’s station in Hawaii to Hong Kong instead of following proper whistleblower procedures.
U.S. authorities asked Hong Kong on Friday to extradite Mr. Snowden, but officials there said the request did not comply with their laws.
Gen. Keith Alexander, who heads the National Security Agency, acknowledged Sunday that he did not know how Mr. Snowden was able to leave Hawaii in the first place. Nevertheless, he said, the confessed leaker “betrayed the trust and confidence we had in him.”
“This is an individual who is not acting, in my opinion, with noble intent,” he told ABC’s “This Week,” adding later: “What Snowden has revealed has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and our allies.”
Other lawmakers directed their ire at China and Russia. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, told CNN that there would be “serious consequences for the United States-Russia relationship” if its is revealed that President Vladimir Putin helped Mr. Snowden evade American authorities.
Others are taking a nuanced view toward the suddenly famous leaker who was recently fired from Booz Allen Hamilton, an American consulting firm.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican known for libertarian views, said how Mr. Snowden will be judged is an “open question.”
“If he cozies up to either the Russian government, the Chinese government or any of these governments that are perceived still as enemies of ours, I think that that’ll be a real problem for him in history,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union,” noting that Iceland would be a preferred destination.
He contrasted Mr. Snowden’s activities with remarks from National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper, who told Congress in March that the government does not collect information on millions of Americans — at least not wittingly.
“Mr. Clapper lied in Congress, in defiance of the law, in the name of security. Mr. Snowden told the truth in the name of privacy,” Mr. Paul said.
Chiefs of U.S. security agencies, even as they lambaste Mr. Snowden as a traitor, have sought to allay fears that the government has carte-blanche power to snoop on Americans’ phone calls and Internet activity.
“We take protecting our civil liberties and privacy as one of our key foundational values,” Gen. Alexander told ABC.
He said the intelligence community failed to connect the dots ahead of the terrorists attacks of Sept. 11, 2011, so the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was crafted to give security agencies the tools it needed to make sure it didn’t happen again. He also said there is no evidence that intelligence personnel have ever attempted to circumvent controls within the law so they could snoop on communications.
He said he can point to “more than 50 cases” in which the spying programs helped the agency thwart potential attacks.