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NSA Leaker in Moscow, Asks for Asylum in Ecuador

June 23, 2013

by VOA News

The former U.S. intelligence contractor wanted by the United States for leaking information on government surveillance programs has asked for political asylum in Ecuador after flying from Hong Kong to Moscow.

Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino posted a message on Twitter Sunday, saying his government has received an asylum request from Edward Snowden, the former U.S. National Security Agency contractor. Patino did not provide further details.

Anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said its legal advisors and unidentified diplomats accompanied Snowden as he flew to Moscow Sunday from Hong Kong, where he had been in hiding since last month. It said the escorts will remain with Snowden as he travels to Ecuador, one of Latin America's strongest critics of U.S. foreign policy.

Ecuador has sheltered WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at its London embassy for the past year. Assange took refuge in the embassy to avoid being deported from Britain to Sweden to face sexual assault charges. He has claimed that Sweden could extradite him to the United States to face charges related to WikiLeaks' publication of secret U.S. diplomatic cables in 2010.

A U.S. official in Washington told Western news agencies that Snowden's U.S. passport has been revoked.

The State Department later said U.S. citizens wanted on felony charges such as Snowden "should not be allowed to proceed in any further international travel, other than is necessary to return him to the United States." It declined to comment specifically on Snowden's passport status, but said citizens with felony arrest warrants are "subject to having their passport revoked."

Snowden remained inside Moscow's airport after arriving Sunday. Russian news agencies said he is expected to depart the airport Monday, on a flight to the Cuban capital, Havana, before continuing to his final destination.

VOA's Moscow correspondent James Brooke says the Russian government is happy to play a role in facilitating Snowden's flight from the U.S. justice system.

"They are very much enjoying this negative publicity for the U.S. - that the all-powerful U.S. tried to have the man arrested and he got out of Hong Kong in the nick of time and is playing this around-the-globe cat-and-mouse game with the U.S. They love that. And they're a player once again. They love being back in the superpower game," he said.

Snowden traveled to Hong Kong after leaving the United States last month and releasing documents that indicated the extent of U.S. monitoring of telephone and Internet communications.

He initially expressed a desire to stay in Hong Kong and fight extradition to the United States. But he left the autonomous Chinese territory after the U.S. Justice Department unsealed criminal charges against him.

The United States asked Hong Kong to extradite Snowden last week, after charging him with espionage and theft of U.S. government property for providing newspapers with classified documents about U.S. surveillance programs. But Hong Kong said the 30-year-old was free to leave on Sunday, because the U.S. extradition request did not fully comply with its legal requirements.

The U.S. Justice Department issued a statement saying it will continue to discuss the matter with Hong Kong and pursue "relevant law enforcement cooperation" with other countries where Snowden may be attempting to travel.

Snowden leaked documents showing that U.S. intelligence services have gathered data for years about patterns of telephone and Internet use at home and abroad. He told several newspapers that he exposed the programs because he believes they violate the privacy rights of citizens.

Senior U.S. officials have said the surveillance programs do not monitor the content of phone conversations, but look for patterns in the metadata, including information on the time, date and numbers called.

U.S. authorities also have said the programs prevented at least 50 terrorist plots worldwide since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. They have accused Snowden of weakening their ability to foil future plots.

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