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Snowden's stealthy exit: How WikiLeaks and maybe Russia helped

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Vincent Yu/AP

(Read caption) A giant screen at a Hong Kong shopping mall shows Edward Snowden, the former contractor accused of leaking information about NSA surveillance programs. He left Hong Kong on Sunday.

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The fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden has sprung yet another surprise. He's on the move, and reportedly traveling to Cuba, and then perhaps on to Venezuela or Ecuador, via Moscow.

Mr. Snowden left his temporary refuge in Hong Kong Sunday morning, just one day after the US government charged him with espionage and launched an urgent effort to extradite him from the former British colony. He boarded an Aeroflot flight to Moscow, and news reports say he has an onward ticket with the Russian national airline to fly to Cuba on Monday.

In addition to the clear suggestion of official Russian aid with the fleeing whistleblower's logistics, Snowden appears to have received help from a more kindred source. WikiLeaks tweeted Sunday that it had "assisted Mr. Snowden's political asylum in a democratic country, travel papers and safe exit from Hong Kong."

Kremlin authorities earlier hinted that Russia might be willing to grant asylum to Snowden. But President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists Sunday that he knows nothing about the NSA leaker's travel plans.

Authorities in Hong Kong announced Snowden's departure Sunday in an official statement that noted he had left "on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel," and added that US authorities had already been informed.

The statement said the urgent US warrant to arrest Snowden could not be carried out "since the documents provided by the US Government did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law....  As the HKSAR [Hong Kong] Government has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr Snowden from leaving Hong Kong."

The statement included an extraordinary passage that may go far toward explaining why Hong Kong, which does have an extradition treaty and good relations with the US, appears to have turned so uncooperative in Snowden's case: "Meanwhile, the HKSAR Government has formally written to the US Government requesting clarification on earlier reports about the hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong by US government agencies. The HKSAR Government will continue to follow up on the matter so as to protect the legal rights of the people of Hong Kong."

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said in a statement Sunday that his organization was providing legal and logistical help to move Snowden to a safe haven in a "democratic country."

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"Mr. Snowden is flying in an Aeroflot aircraft over Russian airspace, accompanied by WikiLeaks legal advisers," Mr. Assange said.

Upon arrival in Moscow he will be "met by diplomats from the country that will be his ultimate destination. Diplomats from that country will accompany him on a further flight to his destination," he added. The third country is still not named, but experts say it's most likely to be Venezuela or Ecuador.

"Owing to WikiLeaks' own circumstances, we have developed significant expertise in international asylum and extradition law, associated diplomacy and the practicalities in these matters," Assange said. "I have great personal sympathy for Ed Snowden's position. WikiLeaks absolutely supports his decision to blow the whistle on the mass surveillance of the world's population by the US government."

Snowden's latest revelations, published in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post on Sunday, indicate that US intelligence agencies have been hacking Chinese mobile phone companies to steal millions of text messages.

Russian security expert Andrei Soldatov, who edits Agentura.ru, an online journal that focuses on the secret services, says that in addition to granting Snowden safe passage to Cuba on an Aeroflot jetliner, Russia may have played a deeper role in helping to arrange his flight.

He suggests that the Kremlin's English-language satellite news network, RT, which enjoys very close relations with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, could have used its offices to help Wikileaks hook up with Snowden in Hong Kong, 

"There are reports that Assange's assistant, Sarah Harrison, is flying on the same plane with Snowden," says Mr. Soldatov. "Involvement of RT would make sense, since RT has close cooperation with Assange, and he did a series of programs for them last year [Russia gives WikiLeaks' Julian Assange a TV platform]. The involvement of WikiLeaks requires no explanation. It wants to maintain itself as the key center for all disclosures of the kind that Snowden brought to the world," he adds. 

Soldatov says Russian assistance is also logical, for wider reasons than just an opportunity to stick it to Uncle Sam.

"Russia and China have been involved in a so-far unsuccessful struggle to change the rules of the Internet, by taking control of it away from the US-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and giving its functions to a wider, non-US-based entity," he says.

"The Russians and Chinese have been posing, for these purposes, as big defenders of Internet freedom. This political context helps to explain RT's close relations with WikiLeaks as well.... So, it makes sense for them to help Snowden too. Russian authorities see an opportunity to present themselves as the new center of refuge for whistleblowers against US dominance in Cyberspace. It's a coup for them," he adds.  


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