Former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden has left Hong Kong for an unspecified third country “through a lawful and normal channel”, the Hong Kong government has announced.
CNN reports that Snowden, who has been dominating the news cycle and embarrassing the U.S. government with his revelations of U.S. intelligence operations, departed the Chinese territory shortly after the U.S. asked Hong Kong authorities to extradite him. But Hong Kong officials say that the request did not fully comply with local law.
On Twitter, WikiLeaks has claimed to have assisted Snowden with political asylum in a “democratic country”, travel paper and exit.
The South China Morning Post meanwhile is reporting that Snowden left Hong Kong on Sunday morning, boarding a commercial flight bound for Moscow, although Russia is not his final destination. Iceland and Ecuador have previously been mentioned as possible choices. Other possibilities include Cuba and Venezuela. Experts had previously said that even had Snowden remained in Hong Kong, the extradition process could have taken years.
At about 5:20 pm Hong Kong time, WikiLeaks tweeted that Snowden was over “Russian airspace accompanied by WikiLeaks legal advisers”. For its part, the Russian government is claiming no knowledge of Snowden's movements, although The Guardian is reporting that some Russian MPs are taking to Twitter to call on the government to grant him asylum.
Earlier, Snowden had told the same paper that the NSA had been running extensive operations against China’s Tsinghua University and mobile phone companies. These and other revelations prompted China’s Xinhua news agency to call out the U.S. for “playing innocent” as a victim of cyber attacks, and brand it as “the biggest villain in our age”.
While Snowden’s departure will no doubt frustrate furious U.S. officials, it removes a potential headache for Beijing – which would likely have had to make the final decision in his extradition – and a sticking point in Sino-U.S. relations in the wake of a summit between presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama that both sides claim was successful.
Cybersecurity was discussed at the summit, and Xi was at pains to point that China, too, had been a victim of attacks. Snowden’s disclosures would seem to reinforce that position and complicate the issue for the U.S.
Snowden was a technical contractor who worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, which itself was a contractor for the NSA. His saga began when he shared classified details of NSA mass surveillance programs with The Guardian, which published them in June. The leaks have been revelatory for many, demonstrating the extent and intrusiveness of U.S. spying.
Speaking to The Guardian, Snowden sought to explain his actions: “I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things. I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under.”