Edward Snowden, who faces felony charges in the U.S. for allegedly revealing secrets about government surveillance programs, fled Hong Kong for Moscow this morning and is believed to be seeking asylum in Ecuador. NBC's Kristen Welker reports.
The U.S. said Sunday it is "disappointed" that Hong Kong declined to arrest NSA leaker Edward Snowden and warned other countries "in the Western Hemisphere" that they should stop him in his tracks as he reportedly heads to Ecuador via Moscow with assistance from WikiLeaks.
A Justice Department official said authorities have been in "continual contact" with their Hong Kong counterparts since June 10, when they learned that Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency who has been charged with espionage, was there.
Hong Kong did not raise any questions about the U.S. request that Snowden be arrested for a full week, the official said. "In light of this, we find their decision to be particularly troubling," the official added.
Although the U.S. insisted its request fully complied with the law, the Hong Kong government said in a statement that it didn't and that he had left "on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel."
It did not identify Snowden’s final destination, but the South China Morning Post newspaper reported he left on a flight for Moscow.
At about 9:20 a.m. EDT, WikiLeaks' official Twitter account said Snowden had arrived in Moscow. NBC News could not independently confirm that he was in Russia.
About four hours later, WikiLeaks said that Snowden was continuing on to Ecuador to seek asylum, "escorted by diplomats and legal advisors" from the anti-secrecy group.
WikiLeaks said Snowden had requested the group's "legal expertise and experience to ensure his safety."
"Once Mr Snowden arrives in Ecuador his request will be formally processed," the group said.
WikiLeaks claimed Snowden was traveling with Sarah Harrison, a close adviser to group founder Julian Assange who reportedly helped coordinate the release of diplomatic cables allegedly acquired by Pfc. Bradley Manning three years ago. Assange has been holed up in London's Ecuadorean embassy for a year to avoid extradition to Sweden on sex-assault charges.
A State Department officials said the U.S. had been in touch with countries "through which Snowden might transit or that could serve as final destinations."
"The U.S. 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," the official said.
Sources familiar with the case told NBC News that Snowden's U.S. passport has been revoked. A State Department spokeswoman later said that was standard procedure.
"As is routine and consistent with US regulations, persons with felony arrest warrants are subject to having their passport revoked. Such a revocation does not affect citizenship status," said the State Department's Jen Psaki.
"Persons wanted on felony charges, such as Mr. Snowden, should not be allowed to proceed in any further international travel, other than is necessary to return him to the United States. Because of the Privacy Act, we cannot comment on Mr. Snowden's passport specifically."
Snowden fled to the Chinese city-region earlier this month in an attempt to avoid prosecution for leaking classified information about NSA surveillance programs, according to his interviews with The Guardian newspaper.
"He understands the risks that he took. He's very rational about it. He's not delusional in any way," Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian columnist to whom Snowden first leaked the information, told NBC News over the weekend. "He's completely at peace with the choice he made."
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 program known as PRISM.
On June 14, U.S. officials charged Snowden with theft of U.S. government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence to an unauthorized person. A warrant was issued for his arrest.
The following day, Washington asked Hong Kong to arrest him for extradition, and Hong Kong acknowledged getting the request two days later, administration officials said.
The U.S. kept in checking with Hong Kong about the request but was told only that it was "under review," until a request for more information on June 21, the officials said. The U.S. was in the process of preparing a response when it learned Snowden was on the move.
"The U.S. is disappointed and disagrees with the determination by Hong Kong authorities not to honor the U.S. request," the Justice Department official said.
Hong Kong was a British colony until it was returned to China in 1997. Under what is known as the “Basic Law” – the territory's mini-constitution – it has a well-respected and autonomous legal system based on British common law, with far stronger protections for human rights and freedom of expression than exists on the mainland.
NBC News' Kristen Welker, Pete Williams, Anna Nemtsova, Catherine Chomiak and Albina Kovalyova, Hasani Gittens, Daniel Arkin and Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Glenn Greenwald, columnist for The Guardian, speaks with Meet the Press about what Edward Snowden plans to do now that he has left Hong Kong.
This story was originally published on Sun Jun 23, 2013 7:36 PM EDT