Edward Snowden, the man who claims to have leaked a trove of classified information about U.S. spy programs, failed to board his flight from Moscow to Cuba today but is "in a safe place," WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said today.
Snowden, a 30-year-old former contractor for the National Security Agency, twice checked in for a 6:05 a.m. ET flight from Moscow to Havana, but did not board the plane, according to ABC News reporters in Moscow and airport officials.
Over the weekend Snowden stunned U.S. officials by fleeing from Hong Kong, where he's been in hiding for weeks, for Moscow, despite the U.S. having filed charges against Snowden including espionage and an extradition request made to Hong Kong.
U.S. officials said Hong Kong took days to respond to that request and, when it did, Hong Kong officials said there were problems with the request. The next thing the U.S. knew, Snowden had disappeared again -- his passport had not been revoked by the State Department until Saturday. Cuba was to be his next stop on his way to Ecuador, where he has filed for asylum, or possibly Venezuela. Snowden was last believed to be in the transit zone of the Moscow airport and has no visa to officially enter the country without special permission from the Russian government.
Assange, who has been holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since he was granted asylum there last summer, told reporters that Snowden and a WikiLeaks representative he's traveling with are "healthy and safe" and in contact with their legal team. He declined to say anything further about where Snowden may be, except that it's a "safe place" and that Snowden's spirits are high. Assange also said that Snowden can still travel, despite not having a U.S. passport, because Ecuador provided him with "refugee" travel documents.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said it would be "very disappointing" if Snowden was "willfully allowed to board an airplane as a result and there would be without any question some effect on the relationship and consequences."
Some of the U.S. officials blindsided by Snowden's quick split from Hong Kong told ABC News that the Hong Kong government was playing a double-game by generating pointless red tape, which has raised fears that Chinese intelligence operatives had more time and opportunity to copy Snowden's four laptop hard drives – a feat that wouldn't be too difficult for the Russian intelligence service to do as well.
"I wouldn't be surprised if one of those groups hadn't done so already," one senior U.S. intelligence official told ABC News Monday.
"It's fairly easy to do with right equipment," the official explained. "They get you when you leave it in your hotel room or even at the airport when they get you in an interrogation room at immigration."
Whether Snowden has handed over any of his pilfered NSA files to foreign intelligence services is not known, though last week he denied any direct contact with the Chinese government. Snowden publicly confessed to being the source for several headline-grabbing reports from The Guardian and The Washington Post earlier this month about the NSA's vast domestic and international surveillance programs.
Today an attorney for Snowden, Albert Ho, told ABC News that Beijing was the real force behind Hong Kong's actions, or lack thereof, over Snowden. Ho said Snowden had written the Hong Kong government seeking written assurances he would not be detained if he tried to leave the country, but Hong Kong never responded. Snowden cancelled his trip out of the country Saturday, fearing he may be cuffed in the airport, and then suddenly reversed course and decided to proceed, Ho said.
The Chief Executive of Hong Kong, which is a semi-autonomous region of China, said today Hong Kong was simply upholding their laws by not detaining Snowden, as they were still "processing" the U.S. request.
"There was no legal basis to stop Mr. Snowden from leaving Hong Kong," C Y Leung told reporters. "This is a good example to illustrate 'One Country, Two Systems,' 'Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong' and the high degree of autonomy that we have."
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney rebuked Hong Kong for allowing Snowden to leave, telling reporters today that Hong Kong was notified of the charges against Snowden and the request to arrest him in "plenty of time" to stop him from leaving the country.
"We are just not buying that this was a technical decision... this was a deliberate choice by the government," Carney said. "That decision unquestionably has a negative impact on [the] U.S.-China relationship."
Carney said the U.S. government is operating under the assumption that Snowden is still in Russia.
In another revelation, the South China Morning Post reported today that Snowden told the paper during an interview two weeks ago that he purposefully sought out his job at NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton in order to gather evidence against the NSA.
"My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world that the NSA hacked," the paper quotes Snowden as saying on June 12, while he was still in hiding in Hong Kong. "That is why I accepted that position three months ago."
Emily Brandwin, a former CIA covert officer, told ABC News that because of Snowden's alleged disclosures, the intelligence community will be taking a close look at how it clears its contractors for secret work.
"It's going to have an impact for years and years to come [on] how the NSA and how the CIA and how anybody who has clearance operates," she said. "We're going to feel the ripple effect in years to come."