WASHINGTON — U.S. authorities scrambled Sunday to figure out how to catch Edward 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 to could seek asylum.
Snowden managed to elude capture just as U.S. 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 U.S. surveillance programs. He was aided in his escape by WikiLeaks, the antisecrecy 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 this morning in Russia, Snowden was believed to be staying inside the transit zone of a Moscow airport where he was visited by an Ecuadorean 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 an 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 Ecuadorean 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 Garzon, 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.
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 time line of interactions suggesting that the Hong Kong authorities first requested "additional information" Friday.
By the end of the day, U.S. 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 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 State Department said in a statement.
President Barack 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. Aides said only that he was being updated by national security officials and that he had not made any telephone calls personally to foreign leaders seeking cooperation.
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" on June 14, said David 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 on 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 Ecuadorean travel document that Assange said he helped arrange. When Snowden landed in Moscow, he was informed of his passport revocation.
Assange said he did not know whether Snowden might be able to travel beyond Moscow using the Ecuadorean 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 Ecuadorean 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, who by his own account downloaded classified documents while working in Hawaii for the National Security Agency as an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, has said he unveiled secret U.S. surveillance programs because he believed they violated privacy boundaries. Some of his disclosures may have provided motivation to aid his flight in both Beijing and Moscow, where he is celebrated as a hero by the public.
U.S. officials characterize it differently.
"I don't think this man is a whistle-blower," Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee, said on CBS' Face the Nation. "Whatever his motives are, and I take him at face value, he could've stayed and faced the music. I don't think running is a noble thought."
Snowden told the South China Morning Post that the NSA had tapped into Chinese mobile telephone companies to read millions of text messages, hacked dozens of computers at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing and other computers operated by Pacnet, a major telecommunications company with headquarters in Hong Kong and Singapore. According to Britain's Guardian newspaper, he also provided a document showing that the United States during a conference in London in 2009 was able to gain access to the communications of Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia's president and now its prime minister.