Edward Snowden heads for asylum: Why Ecuador?

Edward Snowden, who leaked information about top-secret NSA surveillance programs, reportedly is headed to asylum in Ecuador. US officials still hope to prosecute Snowden on espionage charges, but that may be difficult given US relations with Ecuador.

Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/AP
Journalists stand next to the Ecuadorean ambassador's car while waiting for the arrival of Edward Snowden, the former NSA employee who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping US surveillance programs, at Sheremetyevo airport, just outside Moscow Sunday.

The saga and travels of Edward Snowden took another turn Sunday with reports that he is headed for asylum in Ecuador.

Why Ecuador?

Most obviously, the South American country is friendly to WikiLeaks. That’s the whistle-blower organization whose founder Julian Assange has spent the past year holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London, trying to avoid questioning about alleged sexual offenses in Sweden.

WikiLeaks has been instrumental in spiriting Mr. Snowden out of Hong Kong – reportedly en route via Moscow and Havana to a place of more permanent refuge in Ecuador with a WikiLeaks official accompanying him.

Ecuador's ambassador to Russia said he expected to meet Snowden in Moscow on Sunday, Reuters reports. What’s more, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has good ties with WikiLeaks and is in a politically confident mood after his recent landslide reelection.

Along with Cuba and Venezuela (which had been thought to be Snowden’s ultimate destination) Ecuador is a member of ALBA – the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America – an alliance of leftist governments in Latin America that pride themselves on their "anti-imperialist" credentials.

US officials had been scrambling to bring Snowden back to the United States for prosecution on charges of espionage following his leaking of details about top-secret National Security Agency surveillance programs targeting telephone and Internet metadata, including some data on US citizens.

In a criminal complaint unsealed Friday in federal court in Alexandria, Va., Snowden was charged with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information, and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person. The latter two offenses fall under the US Espionage Act and can bring as many as 10 years in prison.

On Saturday, White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon announced that the US had formally asked Hong Kong authorities to extradite Snowden under a 1998 US-Hong Kong treaty. Apparently that accelerated any plans Snowden might have had to get to what he and his WikiLeaks helpers saw as friendlier territory.

What now for the US government?

Justice Department spokeswoman Nanda Chitre would only say Sunday that the US will “pursue relevant law enforcement cooperation with other countries where Mr. Snowden may be attempting to travel.”

Or as Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D) of California said Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation, “The chase is on.”

"I think it's a very big surprise," Senator Feinstein said. "I had actually thought that China would see this as an opportunity to improve relations and extradite him to the United States. China clearly had a role in this, in my view. I don't think this was just Hong Kong without Chinese acquiescence."

Snowden’s bombshell revelations about NSA surveillance has led to sharp public and political debate about balancing national security in a post-9/11 world and protecting what most Americans consider to be their private information.

"Regardless of what you feel about our NSA laws, I don't know how anybody can view [Snowden] as anything other than a criminal,” Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on "Face the Nation."

“If he views himself as not [a criminal], I hope he'll come back and make his case," Senator Corker said. "But certainly he's not exuding the characteristics of any kind of 'hero,' if you will, to anybody in our nation, I hope."

From President Obama’s perspective, Snowden’s revelations and his apparent ability to escape prosecution present at least three complicated political and diplomatic problems: how to square this with Mr. Obama’s own past statements on privacy freedoms and government openness, relations with Russia, and relations with China.

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