WASHINGTON —The authorities in Hong Kong made a political decision to wash their hands of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and used quibbles about U.S. legal documents as cover to allow him to fly to Moscow despite a direct plea from Attorney General Eric Holder to make an arrest, U.S. officials said.
Snowden's ability to board an Aeroflot flight Sunday to Moscow, despite the revocation of his passport and the warrant for his arrest, was one more move in a series of artful legal and diplomatic maneuvers that have involved China, the Kremlin, WikiLeaks and the Ecuadoran government and kept the 30-year-old outside the grasp of the normally long arm of U.S. justice.
The Obama administration and politicians on Capitol Hill are likely to be infuriated if Snowden makes it to Ecuador, where he has requested asylum. But the former contractor who had worked at an NSA facility in Hawaii until he fled to Hong Kong skillfully placed his fate in the hands of WikiLeaks and countries that nurse their own animosities toward the United States.
It is unclear what options the United States has to persuade other countries on Snowden's itinerary to cooperate.
The United States filed a criminal complaint against Snowden in federal court on June 14, charging him with theft and offenses under the Espionage Act for taking documents about top-secret U.S. surveillance programs that he turned over to the Washington Post and the Guardian. The next day, the United States requested Snowden's detention in Hong Kong on a provisional arrest warrant. The United States issued its own arrest warrant when the complaint was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia.
On June 17, Hong Kong acknowledged receipt of the request, but officials in the Chinese territory did not respond to U.S. inquiries about whether they needed further information, according to a Justice Department spokesperson who provided a time line of events on the condition of anonymity. Officials in Hong Kong told the United States that the case was under review.
Two days later, Holder called his counterpart, Hong Kong Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen, and stressed the importance of the matter, the Justice Department spokesperson said.
On Friday, Hong Kong authorities requested more information about the charges, and the United States was in the process of responding it learned that Snowden had left, the department spokesperson said.
Steve Vladeck, a professor at the American University Washington College of Law, said extradition decisions are almost entirely political and diplomatic calculations, not strictly legal matters.
"The Hong Kong authorities used the murkiness of extradition law to make what was a political decision," he said.