Snowden not on flight to Cuba, whereabouts unclear
Light shines through a cabin window on seat 17A, the empty seat that an Aeroflot official said was booked in the name of former CIA technician Edward Snowden, shortly before Aeroflot flight SU150 takes off from Moscow to Havana, Cuba, Monday, June 24, 2013. Snowden, who has admitted to leaking National Security Agency secrets, was expected to fly from Russia to Cuba and Venezuela en route to possible asylum in Ecuador, but AP reporters on the flight never saw him get on board. (AP Photo/Max Seddon)
FILE - In this June 21, 2013 file photo, a banner supporting Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping U.S. surveillance programs, is displayed at Central, Hong Kong's business district. The Hong Kong government says Snowden wanted by the U.S. for revealing two highly classified surveillance programs has left for a "third country." The South China Morning Post reported Sunday, June 23, 2013 that Snowden was on a plane for Moscow, but that Russia was not his final destination. Snowden has talked of seeking asylum in Iceland. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)
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 Sunday, June 23, 2013. The former National Security Agency contractor wanted by the United States for revealing two highly classified surveillance programs has been allowed to leave for a "third country" because a U.S. extradition request did not fully comply with Hong Kong law, the territory's government said Sunday. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
The Aeroflot Airbus A330 plane that was to carry National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden on a flight to Havana, Cuba, taxies out at Sheremetyevo airport, Moscow, Monday, June 24, 2013. Snowden, who arrived in Moscow on Sunday from Hong Kong, booked a seat for the flight to Cuba, but he was not seen on the plane. (AP Photo/ Sergei Ivanov)
The Aeroflot Airbus A330 plane that is to carry National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden on a flight to Havana, Cuba, arrives at the gate at Sheremetyevo airport, Moscow, Monday, June 24, 2013. Snowden arrived in Moscow on Sunday from Hong Kong, where he had been hiding for several weeks. Ecuador's foreign minister said Sunday that the country is considering his application for asylum. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Light shines through a cabin window on seat 17A, the empty seat that an Aeroflot official said was booked in the name of former CIA technician Edward Snowden, during Aeroflot flight SU150 from Moscow to Havana, Cuba, Monday, June 24, 2013. Confusion over the whereabouts of National Security Agency leaker Snowden grew on Monday after SU150 Aeroflot flight filled with journalists trying to track him down flew from Moscow to Cuba with the empty seat booked in his name.(AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Confusion over the whereabouts of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden grew yesterday after a jetliner flew from Moscow to Cuba with an empty seat booked in his name.
Aeroflot said earlier that Snowden had registered for the flight using his U.S. passport, which the United States recently annulled.
The founder of the WikiLeaks secrets-spilling organization, Julian Assange, insisted he couldn’t go into detail about where Snowden was, but said he was safe.
Snowden has applied for asylum in Ecuador, Iceland and possibly other countries, Assange said.
An Aeroflot representative who wouldn’t give her name told the Associated Press that Snowden didn’t board Flight SU150 to Havana, which was filled with journalists trying to track him down. Two AP journalists on the flight confirmed after it arrived last night in Havana that Snowden wasn’t on the plane.
A member of the Aeroflot crew spoke briefly to reporters gathered outside Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport, but would not give his name. “No special people on board,” he said, smiling. “Only journalists.”
Security around the aircraft was heavy before boarding in Moscow and guards tried to prevent the scrum of photographers from taking pictures of the plane, heightening speculation that Snowden might have been secretly escorted on board.
But about two dozen journalists who made the flight searched up and down the plane after boarding in a fruitless hunt for Snowden. One increasingly desperate Russian television reporter was briefly convinced that AP reporter Max Seddon might be the NSA leaker.
When the journalists realized Snowden wasn’t there, they settled in for a long haul flight to Cuba for nothing. Some read, others chatted.
“A substantial percentage of people on board were journalists,” Seddon said. “The flight would have been empty without us.”
A Cuban who was on the plane, Eulalio Pena, also said there was no sign of Snowden.
“We didn’t see him,” Pena said, adding that it was a flight “with no turbulence, and no alcohol.”
Security also was tight at the Havana airport, where Cuban officers forced journalists waiting for the flight to arrive to move outside.
Snowden had not been seen since he arrived in Moscow on Sunday from Hong Kong, where he was in hiding for several weeks to evade U.S. justice and left to dodge efforts to extradite him.
After spending a night in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, he had been expected to fly to Cuba and Venezuela en route to possible asylum in Ecuador.
Experts said it was likely the Russians were questioning Snowden on what he knew about U.S. electronic espionage against Moscow.
“If Russian special services hadn’t shown interest in Snowden, they would have been utterly unprofessional,” Igor Korotchenko, a former colonel in Russia’s top military command turned security analyst, said on state Rossiya 24 television.
Interfax quoted an unidentified “well-informed source” in Moscow as saying that Russia received a U.S. request to extradite Snowden and responded by saying it would consider that. But the same source said Russia could not detain and extradite Snowden since he hadn’t technically crossed the Russian border.
The Kremlin has previously said Russia would be ready to consider Snowden’s request for asylum.
Justice Department officials in Washington did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The controversy over Snowden could further hurt U.S.-Russian relations, already strained over arguments about Syria and a ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children.
Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said his government had received an asylum request, adding yesterday that the decision “has to do with freedom of expression and with the security of citizens around the world.”
Ecuador has been helping Assange avoid prosecution by allowing him to stay at its embassy in London.
But Assange’s comments in a telephone conference with reporters that Snowden had applied for asylum in multiple places opened other possibilities of where he might try to go.
Icelandic officials have confirmed receiving an informal request for asylum conveyed by WikiLeaks, which has strong links to the tiny North Atlantic nation. But authorities there have insisted that Snowden must be on Icelandic soil before lodging a formal request.
A posting also appeared yesterday on the Bolivian government’s Facebook page saying Bolivia had offered asylum to Snowden. Bolivia is another leftist-led nation with touchy relations with the U.S., but Communications Minster Amanda Davila told the AP the posting was the work of a hacker. “This information is absolutely false,” she said.
Snowden gave documents to the Guardian and the Washington Post newspapers disclosing U.S. surveillance programs that collect vast amounts of phone records and online data in the name of foreign intelligence, often sweeping up information on American citizens.
Officials have the ability to collect phone and Internet information broadly but need a warrant to examine specific cases where they believe terrorism is involved.
It isn’t clear Snowden is finished disclosing highly classified information.
Snowden has perhaps more than 200 sensitive documents, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on CBS’s Face the Nation.