WASHINGTON — An increasingly frustrated Obama administration escalated its criticism on Monday of Russia, China and Ecuador, the countries that appeared to be protecting Edward Snowden, the fugitive former government contractor wanted for leaking classified documents, who has eluded what has become a global American manhunt.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that relations with China had suffered a setback over its apparent role in approving a decision on Sunday by Hong Kong to let Snowden board a flight to Moscow and avoid arrest even though his passport had been revoked. Carney also warned the Russian authorities that they should expel Snowden into American custody.
Snowden, 30, a former National Security Agency contractor whose leaks about American surveillance activities have captured world attention, had apparently been set to board a flight from Moscow to Havana on Monday as part of an effort to seek political asylum in Ecuador, which has provided him with special travel papers. But in a deepening intrigue over his whereabouts, Snowden never boarded the flight.
Snowden's vacant seat raised the possibility that the Russian government had detained him, either to consider Washington's demands or perhaps to question him for Russia's own purposes.
Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization that has said it is helping Snowden, told reporters that Snowden was in a safe and secure place. The government of Ecuador, which is also protecting Assange in its London embassy, said it was still considering Snowden's asylum request. But there was no direct word from Snowden himself.
American officials have reacted with increasing anger over their failure to win foreign cooperation in their pursuit of Snowden, who had been hiding in Hong Kong for the past few weeks with a trove of classified information on four laptop computers. Snowden has said he leaked the information about American surveillance to expose the government's invasion of privacy. He has been charged with violating espionage laws.
Further ramping up the criticism on Monday, Carney impugned Snowden's motives and criticized the countries that appeared to be helping him.
"Mr. Snowden's claim that he is focused on supporting transparency, freedom of the press and protection of individual rights and democracy is belied by the protectors he has potentially chosen: China, Russia, Ecuador, as we've seen," Carney said. "His failure to criticize these regimes suggests that his true motive throughout has been to injure the national security of the United States, not to advance Internet freedom and free speech."
Earlier Monday on a visit to New Delhi, Secretary of State John Kerry also emphasized that Russia should send Snowden to the United States. "I would urge them to live by the standards of the law," he said.
In his first public comments since Snowden's flight from Hong Kong, President Barack Obama was more restrained than his advisers. "We're following all of the appropriate legal channels and working with various other countries to make sure that rule of law is observed," he said in answer to a question before an immigration event.
Security was extremely tight at the gate at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on Monday as agents called passengers to board the Havana-bound Aeroflot aircraft. Police officers stood around the plane on the tarmac, and the entrance to the gate inside the terminal was cordoned off with about 25 feet of blue ribbon.
Snowden was said to have reserved a ticket on the flight, Aeroflot Flight 150, in coach seat 17A. But just before the plane pulled away, Nikolay Sokolov, an Aeroflot employee at the gate, said that Snowden was not onboard. "He is not there," Sokolov said. "I was waiting myself."
The unwillingness of Hong Kong authorities to detain Snowden, and Ecuador's declaration that it was considering his asylum request, underscored just how little sympathy the United States was receiving from several countries over the unveiling of its surveillance efforts.
Russia had seemed intent on allowing Snowden to transit through Moscow, but at the highest levels of the Russian government officials seemed to be pulling a page from a Cold War playbook, coyly denying any knowledge of Snowden.
"Overall, we have no information about him," Dmitri S. Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, told Reuters on Monday.
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.
There are no direct commercial flights from Moscow to Ecuador or to Venezuela, another potential destination for Snowden, and any stopover would create an opportunity for local authorities to seize him. Another possibility was that Snowden could leave Moscow on a private plane.
It was unclear how Snowden spent his time at the Moscow airport or precisely where he had spent it. The departure of the flight to Havana came after an all-night vigil by journalists who were posted outside a hotel in the transit zone of the airport where Snowden was apparently staying. But on Monday morning, hotel staff said that no one named Snowden was staying there.
The White House, in its first official statement released just after midnight on Monday, expressed disappointment in Hong Kong's decision to allow Snowden to leave and pressed Russia to turn him over, citing the cooperation between the two countries since the Boston Marathon bombings.
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, like its failure to immediately revoke Snowden's passport — it wasn't revoked until Saturday, and U.S. officials did not ask Interpol to issue a "red notice" seeking his arrest.
Assange said Sunday that he had raised Snowden's case with Ecuador's government. 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."