WASHINGTON — US authorities scrambled Sunday to figure out how to catch Edward J. Snowden, the former national security contractor accused of espionage, as he led them on an international chase, frustrating the Obama administration and threatening to strain relations on three continents.
Diplomats and law enforcement officials from the United States warned countries in Latin America not to harbor Snowden or allow him to pass through to other destinations after he fled Hong Kong for Moscow, possibly en route to Ecuador or another nation where he could seek asylum.
Snowden managed to elude capture just as US officials were asking Hong Kong authorities to detain and send him to the United States on charges that he illegally disclosed classified documents about global US surveillance programs. He was aided in his escape by WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization, whose founder said he helped arrange special refugee travel documents from Ecuador.
The foreign minister of Ecuador confirmed receiving an asylum request from Snowden. As of early Monday morning in Russia, Snowden was believed to be staying the night inside the transit zone of a Moscow airport where he was visited by an Ecuadoran diplomat. It was not clear whether he would be allowed to travel further or, if he were, whether Ecuador would indeed be his final destination.
Russian news services reported that Snowden would take a Monday afternoon flight to Cuba, prompting a late rush for tickets from the horde of journalists gathered at the airport. But others dismissed it as a ruse to put the news media and others off Snowden’s trail.
The turn of events opened a startling new chapter in a case that had already captivated many in the United States and around the world. Snowden’s transcontinental escape was seen as a fresh embarrassment for the Obama administration and raised questions about its tactics in the case, such as its failure to immediately revoke Snowden’s passport.
It also further complicated Washington’s ties with Russia and China, where at least some officials take delight in tweaking what they call American double standards.
Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, said in an interview from his own refuge in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London that he had raised Snowden’s case with Ecuador’s government and that his group had helped arrange the travel documents. Baltasar Garzón, the renowned Spanish jurist who advises WikiLeaks, said in a statement that “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.”
Obama administration officials privately expressed frustration that Hong Kong allowed Snowden to board an Aeroflot plane bound for Moscow on Sunday despite the American request for his detention. But they did not revoke Snowden’s passport until Saturday and did not ask Interpol to issue a “red notice” seeking his arrest.
An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no red notice was requested because they are “most valuable when the whereabouts of a fugitive are unknown.” Snowden was known to be in Hong Kong, so his provisional arrest was sought under an existing American agreement with Hong Kong.
On Sunday, the Hong Kong authorities said that the American arrest request “did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law,” and therefore they could not legally stop Snowden from leaving. The Justice Department rejected this explanation and provided a timeline of interactions suggesting that the Hong Kong authorities first requested “additional information” Friday.
“At no point, in all of our discussions through Friday, did the authorities in Hong Kong raise any issues regarding the sufficiency of the U.S.’ provisional arrest request,” a department official said.
By the end of the day US officials, unsure whether Snowden was actually heading to Ecuador, or possibly Cuba or Venezuela, as also variously reported, were sending messages to an array of possible destinations.
“The US is advising these governments that Snowden is wanted on felony charges and as such should not be allowed to proceed in any further international travel, other than is necessary to return him to the United States,” a State Department official said in a statement.
President Obama, who has drawn criticism since the disclosure of domestic telephone data and foreign Internet communications surveillance programs, remained silent on the latest developments Sunday.
Legal experts said the administration appeared to have flubbed Snowden’s case.
“What mystifies me is that the State Department didn’t revoke his passport after the charges were filed” June 14, said David H. Laufman, a former federal prosecutor. “They missed an opportunity to freeze him in place.” He said he was also puzzled by the decision to unseal the charges Friday rather than waiting until the defendant was in custody.
While officials said Snowden’s passport was revoked Saturday, it was not clear whether the Hong Kong authorities knew by the time he boarded the plane, nor was it clear whether revoking it earlier would have made a difference given the Ecuadoran travel document that Assange said he helped arrange.
Assange said he did not know whether Snowden might be able to travel beyond Moscow using the Ecuadoran document. “Different airlines have different rules so it’s a technical matter whether they will accept the document,” he said.
Assange sought refuge in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London a year ago to avoid being sent to Sweden for questioning in a sexual offense investigation, but British authorities have not permitted him to leave the country without risking arrest. Snowden could end up in a similar predicament, accepted by Ecuador or another country but unable to get there.
Snowden’s presence on Russian territory dealt a fresh blow to a relationship that has deteriorated sharply over the past year over issues such as Syria and human rights. Yet Russian leaders seemed to be making efforts to keep his visit relatively quiet, not parading Snowden before cameras or trumpeting his arrival.
“We have nothing to do with this story,” said Dmitri S. Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin. “I am not in charge of tickets. I don’t approve or disapprove plane tickets. We’re not the proper people to address this question to.”
Ecuador, like Cuba and Venezuela, has expressed antipathy toward what it considers arrogant US policies in Latin America and demonstrated with its decision to shelter Assange that it was willing to defy Washington. Ricardo Patiño Aroca, the country’s foreign minister, said in a Twitter message that an asylum request from Snowden had been received, and he later scheduled a news conference for Monday.
How long Snowden can evade arrest remained to be seen. In an interview with The Guardian this month, he expressed pessimism.
“You can’t come up against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and not accept the risk,” he said. “If they want to get you, over time they will.”