The NSA Case's Secret Story: Turmoil in South America

PHOTO: This picture taken on June 18, 2013 shows a man walking past a banner displayed in support of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in Hong Kong.PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty
This picture taken on June 18, 2013 shows a man walking past a banner displayed in support of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in Hong Kong.

This is an English translation of a Univision News exclusive, first published July 1.

The granting of a safe-conduct pass by the government of Ecuador to former CIA agent and NSA contractor Edward Snowden generated a crisis in the Andean country’s diplomatic circles, according to documents and communications obtained exclusively by Univision News.

The evidence shed light on contradictions by the Ecuadorian government both regarding the issuing of the document and the participation of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who is currently claiming asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

The safe-conduct was processed before Snowden left Hong Kong for Moscow, and was in fact delivered to the former intelligence agent in Hong Kong, as Snowden himself revealed in a thank you letter sent to President Rafael Correa and made public this Monday.

Correa had already admitted publicly that the Ecuadorian consul in London, Fidel Narváez, had given the safe-conduct to Snowden, adding that the document “was not valid.”

“I didn’t know that Snowden was on his way to Ecuador. He was in Hong Kong, I don’t know why he went to Russia, and given his despair because they were going to take his passport away and capture him, our consul (in London) makes a grave mistake and gives him a safe-conduct with no validity, without the government’s knowledge and without authorization,” said the president.

Correa also denied that he, personally, knew about the safe-conduct, stating that he was in a “forest” on the outskirts of Quito, without phone coverage, when the document was created in London on the morning of Saturday, June 22.

Univision established that at least four important diplomats and three high-ranking advisors to the administration in Quito, including Minister of Foreign Affairs Ricardo Patiño Aroca, and Rafael Correa’s legal counsel, had knowledge of and participated in the diplomatic dealings to assist Snowden.

The Ecuadorian consul in London, Fidel Narváez, prepared the special document to guarantee protection for Snowden in the event that he had to travel, while the American ex agent was still in Hong Kong and had not yet made an official request for asylum.

The document, which offered Snowden protection to travel to Ecuadorian territory with the purpose of being granted political asylum, was prepared by Vice Consul Javier Mendoza and was edited by Consul Narváez for 48 minutes according to the document’s metadata.

“The General Consul of Ecuador in London grants this SAFEPASS to the below mentioned citizen. This document is granted to allow the bearer to travel to the territory of Ecuador for the purpose of political asylum. It is requested to the relevant authorities of the transit countries to give the appropriate help, so that the bearer of this document may continue his trip to Ecuador,” reads the document.

According to communications reviewed by Univision, after issuing the document Narváez traveled the same day to Moscow. In a communication dated Monday June 24, addressed to the Ecuadorian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ana Albán, the consul notifies her that he has been in Moscow for two days and that he traveled with the authorization of Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño Aroca and his advisor, José María Guijarro, alias Txema, a Spaniard from the Centro de Estudios Políticos y Sociales (Center for Political and Social Studies) in Madrid, who assists Patiño with foreign policy issues. According to Narváez, the purpose of his trip was to provide support to the Ecuadorian ambassador in Russia, Patricio Chávez.

Snowden’s transfer

The founder of Wikileaks was behind Snowden’s decision to leave Hong Kong in search of a safer place. Assange was negotiating political asylum for Snowden with the government of Iceland, as he revealed in a press teleconference. On June 23, a day after the creation of the safe-conduct in London, Snowden flew to Moscow accompanied by Julian Assange’s assistant, Sarah Harrison.

Upon his arrival at the Moscow airport, Ecuadorian diplomats tried to meet with Snowden at the airport’s Terminal E, where the hotel is located, according to reports from The Voice of Russia. That same day, Foreign Minister Patiño announced on his Twitter account from Vietnam, where he was visiting, that his government had received an asylum petition from the former U.S. agent.

A Wikileaks spokesperson, Kristinn Hrafnsson, also stated that their organization had helped Snowden apply for asylum with the government of Ecuador.

Snowden’s situation, however, became more complicated the same day he arrived in Moscow, due to the State Department’s announcement that his passport had been revoked.

The next day, Monday the 24th, Assange announced that Snowden was about to travel to Ecuador on a flight making a stop in a third country, possibly Cuba or Venezuela, and said that the former agent was in a safe location inside the Moscow airport, waiting for his transfer to his final destination.

Known safe-conduct

The issuance of a safe-conduct in Snowden’s name was known by attorney Alexis Mera, one of President Rafael Correa’s closest advisors. Mera received a copy of the safe-conduct on Tuesday, June 25, three days after it was issued. In a communication that day, Narváez sent a copy of the document to him after Mera requested it.

“Dear Alexis, I am attaching what you requested,” wrote Narváez to Correa’s legal counsel in the message where he included the safe-conduct document as an attachment.

Narváez spoke to President Correa to give him his opinion about what Ecuador faced with the Snowden case, according to a message from Narváez to Mera.

“While I was deciding to prepare that document, in the early morning hours of last Saturday and under the unique circumstances that I explained to the President, my mind was invaded by the story I am attaching,” wrote Narváez, referring to an article he wrote and was sending to Correa via Mera.

Reactions to the safe-conduct

The exposure of the safe-conduct document on Univision’s newscast on Wednesday the 26th generated a tidal wave of responses and official statements in Ecuador.

That same day, President Correa sent his Minister of Foreign Affairs, Patiño, and his ambassador in Moscow, Patricio Chávez, a succinct communication: “The official position is that the Ecuadorian government HAS NOT authorized any safe-conduct for anyone.”

However, he did not deny the possibility that the safe-conduct was real saying: “Any document that may exist in that regard has no validity whatsoever.”

Publicly, in a press conference held on Thursday the 27th, Ecuadorian spokesperson Betty Tola, National Secretary for Political Administration, followed Correa’s instructions closely, stating that her country had not authorized any safe-conduct document.

“Any document in this regard has no validity whatsoever and is the exclusive responsibility of the person who issued it,” said Tola.

Meanwhile, Fernando Alvarado, Communications Secretary, announced that Ecuador was unilaterally and “irrevocably” renouncing the renewal of the Andean Trade Preference Act, one of the benefits that Quito was at risk of losing if it approved Snowden’s request for political asylum.

“Ecuador does not accept blackmail nor does it sell its principles,” ratified Foreign Minister Patiño on his Twitter account.

President Correa himself came out that day and stated, during a visit to the locality of Quevedo, that if the safe-conduct “were real, it would be completely unauthorized and invalid.”

After Correa and Tola’s statements, Univision published a report on its newscast and website, presenting a detailed examination of the safe-conduct to show that the document was not only authentic, but also that it had been prepared at the Ecuadorian consular office in London.

“The electronic Word document that is in Univision’s possession allows us to see its metadata, which show that it was created in a computer from the Ecuadorian Consulate in London. According to the properties box or metadata, that computer is assigned to an official named Javier Mendoza. That is the name of Ecuador’s Vice Consul in London,” said the report.

Assange’s role

Assange’s participation in the negotiations between Ecuador and Snowden provoked criticism among high-ranking Ecuadorian officials and highlighted the tension caused by his presence in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, the communications revealed.

Assange’s statements regarding the case of Snowden and Ecuador, made on Sunday, June 23 and Monday, June 24, in which he assured that Ecuador had provided refugee documents to Snowden and had approved his asylum request, generated discomfort in Ecuadorian diplomatic circles.

In a message sent on Monday the 24th to President Correa and to Communications Secretary Fernando Alvarado, the ambassador in Washington, Nathalie Cely, suggested “having a talk” with Assange about the communicational approach to the Snowden case, since in her opinion, “it looks as if he’s running the show.”

“Yesterday he informed about the ‘refugee documents’ that would allow Snowden to travel. Prior to that it was he who announced the request for asylum... The way this is going to be construed today is that the analysis of the asylum request is a façade and that we have agreed to support his transfer,” wrote Cely in her message to Quito.

In a reply message, Correa expressed his support of Cely’s position. “I agree with Nathalie,” he said.

Alvarado promptly communicated by telephone with Assange and his team in London to express Quito’s concerns.

Assange’s reaction was to write a letter to Foreign Minister Patiño, his advisor José María Guijarro and to Alvarado himself.

In the letter, Assange apologized for causing “inconveniences for Ecuador,” but immediately went on to propose a strategy revealing to what degree, in fact, he was involved in all the details of the handling of the Snowden case.

For example, he mentioned the convenience of having the Ecuadorian Minister of Foreign Affairs publish a “complete and detailed” report on the case with the purpose of “smoothing things over and relieving diplomatic and legal tension between the involved governments.”

He also proposed that Snowden be legally represented by attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights, a non-governmental organization based in New York which represents Bradley Manning, the soldier responsible for leaking hundreds of thousands of United States secret documents through Wikileaks.

“This would give Snowden a respected American voice, which we believe would help his and Ecuador’s reputation in the United States, and more widely in the English-speaking sphere,” wrote the Wikileaks founder.

Finally, Assange suggested that Ecuador’s public communications should be assigned to bilingual journalists who would act as spokespersons, among them Jorge Gestoso and Eva Golinger, or to Central American attorney Renata Avila.

After Univision’s report, the Ecuadorian ambassador to the United States, Nathalie Cely, sent a communication both to Correa and to Alvarado revealing her suspicion that the Wikileaks founder was behind the leaking of the safe-conduct document and internal communications from high-ranking officials in the Ecuadorian government.

“I think he is leaking all of this,” she wrote in a message on Thursday the 27th, titled Suspicion Assange.

High tension

The reports generated reaction from the Ecuadorian Minister of Foreign Affairs and revealed the discontent that exists regarding the handling of foreign policy.

Foreign Minister Patiño Aroca called Félix Narváez back to Quito to explain his version of the facts. Aware of what was happening with the Consul, the Ecuadorian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Ana Albán, also requested going to the Ecuadorian capital to present her own version, in a message sent directly to President Correa on Thursday, June 27.

“Fidel has been called back to Quito by the Minister of Foreign Affairs to give his version of the facts, I think it would be appropriate for me to travel there as well,” said Albán to Correa.

Albán’s position revealed that Ambassador Cely was not the only critical voice regarding Assange’s role in the Snowden case. In an upset tone, Albán asked that they listen to her “perception of what will happen in the near future with regard to our first guest,” referring to Assange.

“I would like you to consider that both in this case (Snowden) and in the first one (Assange), I have never been asked for my opinion, I have only been told how to proceed. So it is necessary to point out that any success or failure of the negotiations that have been held so far with the United Kingdom are the responsibility of my superiors and their advisors, who from a distance have established the rules for handling the issue,” stated Albán referring to Foreign Minister Patiño and his Spanish advisor, Guijarro.

Snowden for the Isaías brothers?

While Quito’s diplomatic negotiations were under way in London and Moscow, other discreet dealings were taking place in Ecuador’s capital. Looking to keep the dialogue flowing, the U.S. embassy in Quito assigned Deputy Chief of Mission Timothy P. Zuniga-Brown to establish a communications bridge with Alexis Mera, Correa’s powerful legal counsel.

According to Univision’s sources, Zuniga-Brown proposed to Mera the coordination of a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Adam Namn to discuss issues of mutual interest. An initial meeting took place on Tuesday, June 25 at Ambassador Namn’s official residence.

The day after, June 26, the American embassy sent the administration a diplomatic note requesting that the Minister of Foreign Affairs “notify the Embassy immediately” if Snowden should arrive in Ecuador by any means of travel.

Additionally, the note asked Correa’s administration to “effectuate the return of Mr. Snowden to the United States by way of denial of entry, deportation, expulsion, or other lawful means under domestic law,” according to a copy of the note obtained by Univision.

The document established, for the first time, the charges against Snowden: “Theft of government property” and “non-authorized communication of classified information and national defense information.”

The next day, Thursday, June 27, Ambassador Cely sent Correa a message from Italy, where she was traveling, to give him other news: she had received a call from the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs for Latin America, Roberta Jacobson, expressing interest on the part of Vice President Joe Biden in speaking directly with Correa.

Basically there were three issues around which the telephone conversation would revolve: the extradition of Snowden should Ecuador grant him asylum, in accordance with the previous day’s diplomatic note; the renewal of the Andean Trade Preference Act for Ecuador; and a petition presented by Chevron oil company in Washington to suspend the preferences.

Cely’s communication included a fourth element of interest to Quito: “the pending case of the Isaías brothers.” Roberto and William Isaías, two bankers accused of corruption by Correa’s administration, had obtained a favorable ruling by a Miami court in a lawsuit filed by the Ecuadorian government to demand the confiscation of their assets in U.S. territory.

In addition, Ecuador had filed an extradition request for the Isaías brothers, which until now has been unsuccessful.

The issue of the Isaias’ extradition, which, according to Univision’s sources, Quito wanted to use in exchange for Snowden’s potential extradition should he be granted political asylum, faced a formidable obstacle.

Just a week earlier, on June 19, the State Department had notified Ecuador that it was not “able to proceed with the extradition request for Roberto and William Isaías Dassum at this time,” since Ecuador “has not provided evidence that the Isaias brothers deliberately participated in the planning of the embezzlement, or that they embezzled funds from the Central Bank in the specified monetary amount,” according to the text in the message obtained by Univision.

Biden’s call finally took place at 9:30 am on Friday, June 28, as planned. The telephone call lasted half an hour and according to Correa had a “cordial” tone. The Ecuadorian president said that Biden had asked him to refuse the request for political asylum made by Snowden from Moscow, informed the Ecuadorian leader himself during a broadcast of his television program on Saturday, June 29.

In response, Correa told Biden that Ecuador could not process the request for political asylum as Snowden was not officially in Ecuadorian territory. Correa added that if he were to contemplate the asylum, the first opinion he would seek would be that of the United States. For some observers, this statement was, in practice, a way of denying political asylum to Snowden in advance.

Snowden’s safe-conduct was a mistake

After denying, on several occasions, that Ecuador had given Snowden a safe-conduct, President Correa finally admitted that the issuance of this document was a “mistake.” He stated it in an interview with the AP news agency on Sunday the 30th.

Correa admitted that Snowden received a safe-conduct from Ecuador, although he asserted that it was not authorized by him. The purpose of the document, according to Correa, was to provide him with a travel document in case his U.S. passport was suspended, which finally did happen.

“I didn’t know that Snowden was on his way to Ecuador. He was in Hong Kong, I don’t know why he went to Russia, and given his despair because they were going to take his passport away and capture him, our consul (in London) makes a grave mistake and gives him a safe-conduct with no validity, without the government’s knowledge and without authorization,” said the president.

Correa said that Narváez, the consul in London responsible for issuing the safe-conduct, “must assume this serious responsibility because he was not authorized to do that.”

Ecuador wanted to send a plane for Snowden

The AP also revealed that Ecuadorian diplomats with direct knowledge of the case said that Correa administration officials made detailed plans to protect Snowden and get him to travel to Ecuadorian territory, but that the plans failed due to the position of Vladimir Putin’s government on the issue.

The officials stated to AP that Russian authorities caused the failure of Ecuador’s efforts to approve Snowden’s request for political asylum.

The Ecuadorian officials told AP that the government of Quito asked Moscow to allow Snowden to travel on a commercial flight to meet with Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño in Vietnam or Singapore, where the minister was on an official tour. The proposal was not approved by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

The Russians also opposed allowing Ecuador to send an airplane to pick up Snowden and take him from Moscow to Quito, AP stated.

Final assessment

In the end, the Snowden case seems to boil down to this: Rafael Correa’s government, which at first jubilantly announced that it would consider Snowden’s asylum, retreated after a phone call with the Vice President of the United States. Meanwhile, the consul in London was left holding sole responsibility for the safe-conduct that Snowden evidently received in Hong Kong, according to his own statement in a letter to Correa. The former NSA contractor remains in limbo, and now his case depends on the Russians’ potential interest in granting him political asylum.

The biggest loser in this operation turned out to be the person who until one week ago seemed to be in control of the case: Julian Assange. The Wikileaks founder not only failed to gain asylum for Snowden, but also complicated his relationship with the Ecuadorian government, a government that has protected him for a very long time, according to press reports.

In statements made this Monday, President Correa said that he was upset by Assange’s actions in the Snowden case, and reprimanded him by telling him: “Do not refer to situations pertaining to our country.”

In the end, it seems that Assange did not achieve Snowden’s political asylum in Ecuador and has complicated his.