HONG KONG — Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who has acknowledged leaking classified documents about American surveillance operations around the world, planned his escape from Hong Kong to Moscow over a surreptitious dinner of pizza, fried chicken and sausages, washed down with Pepsi.
It was a cloak-and-dagger affair. Snowden wore a cap and sunglasses and insisted that the assembled lawyers hide their cellphones in the refrigerator of the home where he was staying, to block any eavesdropping. Then began a two-hour conversation during which Snowden was deeply dismayed to learn he could spend years in prison without access to a computer during litigation over whether he would be granted asylum here or surrendered to the United States.
Staying cooped up in the cramped Hong Kong home of a local supporter was less bothersome to Snowden than the prospect of losing his computer.
“He didn’t go out, he spent all his time inside a tiny space, but he said it was OK because he had his computer,” said Albert Ho, one of Snowden’s lawyers. “If you were to deprive him of his computer, that would be totally intolerable.”
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After the meeting, Ho was sent to ask the Hong Kong government if Snowden would be released on bail if he were arrested or whether he would be allowed to leave the country.
Leung Chun-Ying, Hong Kong’s chief executive, the top government post, and his top advisers had been struggling through numerous meetings for days, canceling or postponing most other meetings, while trying to decide what to do in response to a U.S. request for Snowden’s detention, even as public opinion in Hong Kong seemed to favor protecting the fugitive.
But Snowden’s choice of Ho to represent him raised a problem, said the person knowledgeable about the government’s deliberations. Ho was a longtime campaigner for full democracy while a member of the territory’s Legislature for nearly 20 years, further irritating territory leaders. The Hong Kong government, which Britain returned to China in 1997, also did not want to be involved in any direct negotiations with Snowden. So the government found an intermediary to bypass Ho and contact Snowden.
The intermediary told Snowden on Friday night that the government could not predict what Hong Kong’s independent judiciary would do, but that serving jail time while awaiting trial was possible. The intermediary also said the Hong Kong government would welcome Snowden’s departure.
Snowden went through the same security and immigration channels as most passengers at the Hong Kong airport, rather than a special channel usually used for people involved in highly political cases — a sign that the Hong Kong government wanted to minimize its involvement in Snowden’s departure, Ho said. He boarded an Aeroflot flight to Moscow.
At the same time, the Hong Kong government’s encouragement for Snowden to leave had convinced him that staying was risky because the Hong Kong government might not be on his side. “He would not like to fight with the Hong Kong government, with the Chinese government and the U.S. government” against him, Ho said.
Ho said the disclosure late Friday of a sealed indictment against Snowden in the United States had prompted his client to become considerably more anxious about staying in Hong Kong.
Ho said if the Hong Kong government had not assured Snowden of safe passage to the airport and exit from the territory, his client intended to seek the advice of Stephen Young, the U.S. consul general here, whom Ho knows socially. But the Hong Kong government’s assurance of safe passage meant that this plan was never discussed in depth, Ho added.
Obama administration officials expressed profound annoyance Sunday that Hong Kong let Snowden get away. But the person knowledgeable about the Hong Kong government’s deliberations said officials were annoyed about how Washington handled the case.
Charles Mok, a Hong Kong legislator and tech expert, told The Washington Post that it didn’t appear that the U.S. request for a warrant for Snowden’s arrest made it to a judge here. Rather, it appeared to have been stopped by the administration of Chief Executive Leung, who is widely viewed as being sympathetic to Beijing.
Justice Department officials have said Snowden’s passport had been revoked by the time he arrived at the Hong Kong airport Sunday to leave. Hong Kong’s immigration department said in a statement Monday that “so far no notification has been received from the United States Government of Mr. Edward Snowden’s passport being revoked.”
Ho said Snowden has not been working for any government other than the United States.
“He believed he was doing the right thing, serving the people,” Ho said, later adding that, “Certainly he is not a spy for anybody — Russia, China.”
Snowden, who just turned 30, came to Hong Kong from Honolulu without a well-thought-out plan, while overestimating how free he would be to move around Hong Kong after his disclosures and underestimating the public attention he would receive, Ho added.
“I really think he’s a kid. I think he never anticipated this would be such a big matter in Hong Kong,” Ho said.
When Snowden came to Hong Kong from Hawaii in late May, he looked up an individual whom he had met on a previous vacation here. That individual, whom Ho declined to identify but described as a well-connected Hong Kong resident, became Snowden’s “carer.”
Snowden accepted an invitation to stay in the home of one of the individual’s friends when he checked out of the Mira Hotel on June 10, and the individual put him in touch with two local lawyers.
One is Robert Tibbo, a barrister who studied chemical engineering at McGill University in Canada and later decided to become a lawyer. The other is Jonathan Man, an associate at Ho, Tse, Wai, & Partners. It is one of Hong Kong’s best-known law firms, where Ho is the senior partner.
Ho said that he met Snowden for the first time on the evening of the pizza dinner.
Snowden said little until they had arrived at a home, took Man aside and told him that “all the phones should be put in the refrigerator, the entire phones, and then he became very outspoken,” Ho said.
When Snowden went to the airport, he had a plan to reach a country where he believed he could obtain asylum, partly from discussions with Sarah Harrison, a WikiLeaks adviser who had come to Hong Kong to assist Snowden, Ho said.
As for Snowden’s final intended destination, Ho said that it was almost certainly not Iceland or Cuba and that Snowden intended only to pass in transit through Moscow. He refused to discuss whether his destination was Ecuador.
Snowden has asked for refuge in Ecuador and other countries, according to Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, who said he was advising Snowden.
Assange said Ecuador had supplied Snowden with a “refugee document of passage” before his flight from Hong Kong, facilitating his travel to Moscow and, presumably, beyond.
Assange described the move as an initial step in the process of seeking asylum and a necessary step given the revocation of Snowden’s passport by U.S. authorities.
After reporters and airline officials said Snowden failed to board a flight from Moscow to Havana on Monday afternoon as expected, the United States intensified its pressure on the countries suspected of offering him possible protection.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said the United States believed Snowden was still in Moscow.
Russian news agencies quoted a string of careful statements from unnamed sources who said they were powerless to intervene because Snowden remained in a transit area of the airport and had not crossed the border into official Russian territory.
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino, who was traveling in Vietnam, read from a letter he said Snowden had sent President Rafael Correa. In the letter, Snowden compared himself to Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, charged in the leak of a trove of classified material passed to WikiLeaks, and said he did not believe he would be treated justly and that he could be executed if returned to the United States.
Correa, the Ecuadorean president, has emerged as one of the most vehement critics of U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere. In 2011, his administration expelled the American ambassador in Quito to protest a cable released by WikiLeaks that alleged that the Ecuadorean police force was rife with corruption.
Russian media speculated that he would take the Tuesday flight to Havana and travel from there to South America. Another theory had it that the Russians were having second thoughts.
Secretary of State John Kerry asserted that the United States had returned seven criminals wanted by Russia over the past few years.
But the United States has also irritated Russia by refusing repeated requests to return Viktor Bout, convicted in New York of global arms smuggling and sentenced to 25 years in prison last year.