Snowden flees hotel hideout

U.S. surveillance leaker spent weeks in Hong Kong

New York TimesJune 11, 2013 

APTOPIX NSA Phone Records

Edward Snowden, who worked as a contract employee at the National Security Agency, has admitted that he leaked information on U.S. intelligence programs.

THE GUARDIAN VIA AP

— As Justice Department officials moved Monday to charge Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former CIA computer technician, with disclosing classified information, he checked out of a hotel in Hong Kong where he had been holed up for several weeks, according to two U.S. officials. It was not clear where he went.

Whether Snowden has remained in Hong Kong or fled to another country – such as Iceland, where he has said he may seek asylum – the charges would strengthen the Justice Department’s hand if it tries to extradite him to the United States. One government typically must charge a suspect before another government will turn him over.

“There’s no hesitation” about charging Snowden, one of the U.S. officials said, explaining that the law enforcement officials had not been deterred by the recent debate inside and outside the administration about its zealous leak investigations.

The brazenness of the disclosures about some of the National Security Agency’s sensitive surveillance programs and Snowden’s admission in the newspaper The Guardian on Sunday left little doubt among law enforcement officials, the official said.

Officials at the White House, the Justice Department and intelligence agencies declined to comment Monday on the investigation and on Snowden.

Senate panel to hold closed briefing

In other developments, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who is the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee and has praised the effectiveness of the programs, said the panel would hold a closed briefing for all senators Thursday to hear from NSA, FBI and Justice Department officials. A similar closed hearing is scheduled for Tuesday in the House.

In Hong Kong, legal experts said the government was likely to turn over Snowden if it found him and the United States asked, although he could delay extradition, potentially for months, with court challenges, but probably could not block the process. The Hong Kong authorities have worked closely with U.S. law enforcement agencies for years and have usually accepted extradition requests under longstanding agreements, according to Regina Ip, a former secretary of security.

The Mira Hotel said Snowden had stayed at the hotel but checked out Monday.

The Justice Department investigation of Snowden will be overseen by the FBI’s Washington field office, which has considerable experience prosecuting such cases, according to one of the officials.

The department’s investigation into Snowden is one of at least two continuing government inquiries. The NSA began trying to identify and locate the leaker when The Guardian published its first revelations Wednesday, and there were indications that agency officials considered Snowden a suspect from the start.

According to Kerri Jo Heim, a real estate agent who handled a recent sale of a Hawaii home that Snowden had been renting, the police came by the house Wednesday morning, perhaps even before The Guardian published its story. The police asked Heim if they knew Snowden’s whereabouts. Snowden moved last spring to the house on Oahu, 15 miles northwest of Honolulu, in a neighborhood populated by military families tied to the nearby Schofield Barracks, an Army base.

Investigation measures impact

The NSA investigation is also examining the damage that the revelations may have on the effectiveness of the agency’s programs.

Members of Congress criticized Snowden on Monday. He “has damaged national security, our ability to track down terrorists, or those with nefarious intent, and his disclosure has not made America safer,” said Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

At a White House briefing Monday, Jay Carney, the press secretary, went out of his way not to discuss Snowden, referring to him as “the individual.” Carney declined to say whether President Barack Obama had watched a video in which Snowden explained his motivations.

U.S. officials cited the continuing inquiry as the reason for the low-key approach. By keeping silent on Snowden and his case, the Obama administration also avoids elevating his status, even as whistle-blower advocacy groups championed him and his disclosures Monday. A petition to pardon Snowden, posted on the White House website, attracted more than 25,000 electronic signatures by Monday afternoon.

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