NSA Leaker Edward Snowden Seeks Asylum in Ecuador

Hong Kong: Snowden left the country "on his own accord for a third country."

ByABC News
June 23, 2013, 6:43 AM

June 23, 2013— -- Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who faces espionage charges for disclosing secret U.S. government anti-terrorism programs, has requested asylum in Ecuador, according to the country's foreign minister.

"The Government of Ecuador has received an asylum request from Edward J. #Snowden," Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño Aroca tweeted today hours after a plane believed to be carrying Snowden landed in Moscow from Hong Kong, where Snowden had been hiding.

The Aeroflot plane believed to be carrying Snowden arrived at Sheremetyevo Airport at around 5:10 p.m. local time. There were cars with Ecuadoran flags at the airport, but an Ecuadoran diplomat there refused to answer questions.

Ecuador has allowed WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange to spend a year in its embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faces questioning about sex crime allegations.

The anti-secrecy group released a satatement today that Snowden "bound for a democratic nation via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from WikiLeaks."

According to a report from the Interfax news agency, an unidentified Russian official said Snowden has no Russian visa, so he will remain in the transit area and won't come out of customs. The official was also quoted saying that because Snowden won't pass through border control, Russian authorities can't and won't stop him.

The U.S. State Department said today it had contacted several countries in the Western Hemisphere through which "Snowden might transit or that could serve as his final destinations," a State Department official said.

"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 official said.

Hong Kong officials said early today that Snowden left the country "on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel."

"As the HKSAR 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," Hong Kong government officials said in a statement.

Snowden's U.S. passport was revoked on Saturday, and Hong Kong authorities were then notified -- but the U.S. notification may have occurred after Snowden already had departed the city, which is a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China.

The Obama administration was left "scrambling" for answers for how the fugitive former NSA contractor was able to jet to Moscow, while Washington slept, despite carrying a passport that can no longer be used, an official said.

"I think it's safe to say we were not aware he left Hong Kong," a senior U.S. official familiar with unfolding events told ABC News. "We have little idea of how he left How Kong."

A State Department Operations Center alert said Snowden's U.S passport was revoked Saturday after the Justice Department finally unsealed charges on Friday that had been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on June 14, ABC News has learned.

"Consul General-Hong Kong confirmed Hong Kong authorities were notified that Mr. Snowden's passport was revoked June 22," the State Department's senior watch officer informed top officials in a new message.

But whether the U.S. embassy was able to tell Hong Kong in time before Snowden fled, or whether the Chinese officials simply were eager to wash their hands of him and let him go, remains unclear.

A State Department spokesperson said they did not have a comment at this time.

The Russian government has been notified by the embassy in Moscow that Snowden no longer has a valid U.S. passport and that the U.S. "desires to have him deported," according to another message from the Operations Center in Washington.

If Snowden never entered Russian passport control because he was driven from the plane to a foreign embassy, "that means the Russians were looking the other way," the senior U.S. official told ABC News.