NSA Leaker Edward Snowden Not on Cuba Flight But 'In a Safe Place'

U.S. officials fear foreign intelligence could steal Snowden's secrets.

June 24, 2013, 7:16 AM

June 24, 2013 — -- 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 The next thing the U.S. knew, Snowden had disappeared again -- his passport had not been revoked by the State Department until Saturday.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.

READ: Snowden's Last Hours in Hong Kong, How He Decided to Leave

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."

FULL COVERAGE: The Saga of Edward Snowden

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."

Could Snowden's NSA Secrets Be Stolen?

Snowden's flight itinerary booked for today – with a stopover in Cuba before reportedly planning to head to either Venezuela or Ecuador -- heightened concerns not only about his personal motives but about the ease with which several governments unfriendly to the U.S. could copy the hard drives of his reported four laptops along the route, whether he invites them to or not, sources said.

"Does anybody think he's that stupid? That he doesn't know what a state like Russia or Cuba is capable of in terms of disk imaging?" another U.S. official familiar with the Snowden case told ABC News on Sunday. "He isn't that naive. What they can do to penetrate what he's got compared to what he can do to encrypt stuff is something he understands very well."

A program under the Department of Homeland Security allows Customs and Border Protection officers at international entry points to "image" -- or make a copy of -- the hard drives of laptops carried by travelers entering the country who have possible terror ties or have otherwise raised suspicion for criminal activity.

The FBI has amassed considerable expertise at cracking encrypted hard drives of captured al Qaeda figures, and both the Secret Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have perfected ways to penetrate encrypted systems of the savviest criminals.

Imaging a hard drive is relatively simple. Once the hard drive is copied, computer forensics experts can take their time exploiting or decrypting it at their leisure after the laptop and its owner are long gone.

When asked about the possibility other intelligence organizations getting access to Snowden's laptops, WikiLeaks' Assange would only say that Snowden's "material has been secured by the relevant journalistic organizations prior to travel."

Meanwhile, American security officials are still steamed over Snowden's escape from Hong Kong while they were negotiating his capture with Chinese officials in the sprawling city of eight million.

"They knew late Friday that we were working to answer their questions about the fugitive deportation request and at no point did Hong Kong give us any indication that there was a problem," a U.S. official told ABC News.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Justice had worked into the weekend to address Hong Kong's questions about the warrant for Snowden's apprehension. Senior Obama administration officials closely monitored the effort to bring the former Booz Allen contractor to justice for allegedly leaking highly classified files to three newspapers.

Now, former CIA agent Brandwin, who posts on Twitter under the handle @CIAspygirl, says, it appears some major world powers are playing "hot potato, hot potato."

"I think we're all just collectively waiting to see where the music stops, to see where he lands," she said. "It's the most epic game of Marco Polo ever."

ABC News' Megan Chuchmach, Matthew Mosk, Lee Ferran, Tanya Stukalova and Dragana Jovanovic contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events