A TV screen shows a news report of Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping U.S. surveillance programs, at a shopping mall in Hong Kong on Sunday.(Photo: Vincent Yu, AP)
Zach Coleman and Anna Arutunyan, USA TODAY
HONG KONG - NSA leaker Edward Snowden was permitted to leave Hong Kong despite an extradition request that he be returned to the United States to face charges of espionage.
Russian state media says he has landed in Moscow, and that he intends to fly to Cuba and on to Venezuela.
The U.S. Justice Department confirmed his departure from Hong Kong just hours after officials announced they filed a formal petition with Chinese authorities seeking Snowden's arrest and return to the United States.
"We have been informed by the Hong Kong authorities Mr. Snowden has departed Hong Kong for a third country,'' Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre said Sunday. "We will continue to discuss this matter with Hong Kong and pursue relevant law enforcement cooperation with other countries where Mr. Snowden may be attempting to travel.''
The Hong Kong government said Sunday Snowden, 30, was allowed to fly out "on his own accord" because a the U.S. extradition request announced Saturday did not fully comply with Hong Kong law.
New York U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D), appearing on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday morning, asserted that Russian President Vladimir Putin likely knew and approved of fugitive Edward Snowden's flight and that it will "have serious consequences" in the U.S.- Russian relationship.
"Putin always seems almost eager to stick a finger in the eye of the United States, whether it is Syria, Iran and now of course with Snowden," Schumer said, adding that China may have had a role as well.
"It remains to be seen how much influence Beijing had on Hong Kong," Schumer said. "As you know, they coordinate their foreign policies and I have a feeling that the hand of Beijing was involved here."
"What is infuriating here," said Schumer, is that Putin "is aiding and abetting Snowden's escape."
Russian news media site RT reported that Snowden will be on flight to Havana, leaving Moscow on Monday and then on to Caracas, arriving Monday night. Russia's state ITAR-Tass news agency said Snowden was on Flight SU213, which landed on Sunday afternoon.
RT reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin was unaware of Snowden's plans to fly to Moscow. It said RussianInterfax news agency said Snowden was met at the airport by an official from the Venezuela embassy.
Earlier this month Peskov said the Kremlin would consider granting Snowden asylum if he asked for it.
Interfax reported that Snowden has not been able to leave the airport because he does not have a Russian visa. He was accompanied by Wikileaks representative Sarah Harrison, a British citizen and Assange confidante who does have a Russian visa, according to Interfax. A car belonging to the Venezuela embassy was spotted visiting the airport.
Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, told Australian Sydney Morning Herald that Snowden will be met by "diplomats from the country that will be his ultimate destination" in the airport, who'll accompany him on a further flight to his destination.
Wikileaks has published national secrets on its site in the past and Assange is hiding in the Ecuadorean embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden on charges of rape. WikiLeaks said it had helped him exit Hong Kong.
"(Snowden) is bound for a democratic nation via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisers from WikiLeaks," the group said in a statement.
Hong Kong said in a statement that it allowed Snowden to leave because documents provided by the U.S. government for extradition did not "fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law," and the U.S. had not yet provided the additional information requested to consider the U.S. request for a provisional arrest warrant.
It said there was no legal basis to stop Snowden from leaving, and the U.S. had been informed of his departure.
Regina Ip, a legislator and cabinet member, said Sunday that a judge in Hong Kong might have rejected a provisional arrest warrant for Snowden if the government had proceeded with the "insufficient" information the U.S. had provided.
"I don't think we need to be concerned about any consequences," she said without elaboration.
After the anniouncement Saturday of the extradition request, an Obama administration official told USA TODAY that Hong Kong risked harming relations with the two sides if it did not comply with its legal obligations.
Snowden has been the focus of a criminal investigation since he acknowledged earlier this month that he was the source of materials detailing surveillance programs that collected telephone records for millions of Americans and a separate operation that targeted the Internet communications of non-citizens abroad who were suspected of terrorist connections.
A criminal complaint was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia on June 14 and was unsealed Friday.
Hong Kong also said it had asked the U.S. to clarify reports, based on interviews with Snowden, that the NSA had hacked into computers in Hong Kong and would follow up on the matter "to protect the legal rights of the people of Hong Kong."
Legislator Leung Kwok-hung called Snowden's departure "a loss" for the people of Hong Kong given the value of his leaks in bringing attention to U.S. electronic surveillance in Hong Kong and globally. Leung worries that Snowden may end up in a place where he is less able to call attention to the NSA's activities.
"He has done something good for Hong Kong and the rest of the world already," said Leung, chairman of the League of Social Democrats. "I totally respect his choice as an individual" to leave Hong Kong. "As an individual he needs to take care of his interests," he said.
The South China Morning Post meanwhile published additional allegations of hacking in Hong Kong and China on Sunday based on its June 12 interview with Snowden. The newspaper reported that Snowden had provided information to show that the NSA had hacked into the Hong Kong system of Pacnet, which runs undersea telecommunications cables around the Pacific, and into 63 computers and servers at Tsinghua University in Beijing, one of China's most elite schools.
He added, ""The NSA does all kinds of things like hack Chinese cell phone companies to steal all of your SMS data."
The newspaper did not indicate why it withheld publication of these reports until Snowden had left Hong Kong.
More: Snowden charged with espionage for NSA leaks
More: Snowden background check may have been flawed
Snowden, who was employed by Booz Allen Hamilton as an NSA systems analyst in Hawaii, fled to the Chinese territory of Hong Kong last month with top-secret documents and court orders on government surveillance operations.
A one-page criminal complaint against Snowden was unsealed Friday in federal court in Alexandria, Va., part of the Eastern District of Virginia where his former employer, government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, is headquartered, in McLean. He is charged with unauthorized communication of national defense information, willful communication of classified communications intelligence information and theft of government property. The first two are under the Espionage Act and each of the three crimes carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison on conviction.
The complaint is dated June 14, five days after Snowden's name first surfaced as the person who had leaked to the news media that the NSA, in two highly classified surveillance programs, gathered telephone and Internet records to ferret out terror plots.
Snowden told the South China Morning Post in an interview published June 12 on its website that he hoped to stay in the autonomous region of China because he has faith in "the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate."
James Hon, a leader of the League in Defense of Hong Kong's Freedom, said, "If (Snowden) has left, that would be good news... because you don't know what the Hong Kong government and the Chinese government together are going to do to him."
Hon, whose group participates in many opposition protests in Hong Kong, added, "I wish him luck."
Contributing: Kevin Johnson in Washington; Arutunyan reported from Moscow
USA TODAY, AP