WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange said Monday that Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor sought by the U.S. government, is "healthy and safe."
But Assange, in a conference call with reporters this morning, would not divulge Snowden's specific whereabouts, or even which country he might be in by now.
Last Friday, the U.S. government unsealed an indictment against Snowden, who has made international headlines over the last few weeks thanks to disclosures about classified NSA surveillance programs that he made through the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers.
"Edward Snowden is not a traitor," Assange said. "He is not a spy. He is a whistleblower who has told the public an important truth."
Over the weekend, Snowden reportedly stayed in the transfers area of Terminal E of Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport after leaving Hong Kong. He had been expected to board a flight to Cuba -- which could take him to possible sanctuary in Venezuela or Ecuador without landing in U.S. territory -- but was not on today's flight to Havana.
Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said Monday, in a press conference while traveling in Vietnam, that the U.S. has refused to extradite bankers to Ecuador, and now his country was free to follow suit. "We are in close contact with the Russian government," he said, according to a report in the Washington Post. "But the specific information as to his whereabouts, we cannot share that at this time, we don't have it and we can't share it."
A New York Times report Monday said that Snowden decided to leave Hong Kong after a dinner last Tuesday with Albert Ho, one of his lawyers who has been a prominent local politician. Snowden was "deeply dismayed," the article said, to learn that he could spend years in jail without access to a computer while his request for asylum was being litigated, and by Friday morning had begun to make plans to leave.
Snowden was reportedly accompanied on the flight to Moscow by Sarah Harrison, an aide to Assange and close confidante.
Ecuador's ambassador to Russia, Patricio Alberto Chavez Zavala, said Sunday that he had planned to meet with Snowden and Harrison at the Moscow airport. Ecuador, which has given Assange sanctuary in its London embassy, has publicly confirmed it has received an "asylum request" from Snowden.
Snowden's abrupt departure from Hong Kong appeared to take the U.S. government by surprise. The State Department did not revoke his U.S. passport until Saturday, even though the felony charges against him for leaking classified material were filed on June 14. And it has not posted an Interpol Red Alert.
Russia's Interfax news agency has reported, citing an anonymous source, that Snowden may have left the country by another route.
Speculation about Snowden's whereabouts -- the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald dubbed it a "white Bronco moment," a reference to the O.J. Simpson police chase/media spectacular 19 years ago -- has shifted media focus from warrantless domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency to a 30-year old former Booz Allen Hamilton employee. The latest round of leaks last week showed that the NSA has been secretly granted legal authority to operate a massive domestic eavesdropping system that vacuums up Americans' phone calls and Internet communications.
Although certain "targeting" and "minimization" procedures could limit the extent to which intelligence analysts can peruse Americans' e-mail and phone calls, even those provide far more surveillance capabilities than U.S. officials have admitted existed. The ACLU responded by saying the leaks show the NSA's spy program is unconstitutional: "The NSA is conducting sweeping surveillance of Americans' international communications, that it is acquiring many purely domestic communications as well, and that the rules that supposedly protect Americans' privacy are weak and riddled with exceptions."
Some other developments include:
• The White House said Monday that it expects the Russian government to send Snowden back to the United States.
• Rep. Peter King, the New York Republican who once called for Wikileaks to be designated a terrorist organization, is taking aim at Snowden too. On CNN Monday morning, King said he supports this "elaborate surveillance" by the NSA and that Snowden is a "traitor." (Under the U.S. Constitution's definition of traitor, however, Snowden is not one.)
• Max Seddon, AP's Moscow correspondent, tweeted a photo of the seat that Snowden was expected to occupy during a flight from Moscow to Cuba. It was empty.
• The Washington Post's Bob Woodward, on Fox News Sunday, said "there's been no demonstrated abuse" of NSA's domestic eavesdropping capabilities. The real question, he said, is "whose interests are being served by these leaks?"
• Snowden took the job at Booz Allen Hamilton "so he could collect proof about the U.S. National Security Agency's secret surveillance programmes ahead of planned leaks to the media," according to a report Monday in the South China Morning Post. Snowden confirmed that to the paper directly, the report said.
• A petition asking President Obama to "pardon Edward Snowden" has received over 112,000 signatures, over the threshold required for a presidential aide to respond. It does not guarantee, however, a response that the petition's signers will like.
• Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and others introduced legislation today (PDF) called the FISA Accountability and Privacy Protection Act of 2013 that would take a small step toward curbing NSA surveillance. It says that orders under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, including one that was used to obtain records of Americans' phone calls from Verizon, must include "minimization" procedures. It also increases disclosure to Congress and the courts. But it stops short of ending the FBI's ability to send companies warrantless demands for information, known as National Security Letters, an authority that was dramatically expanded by the Patriot Act.
• Over at FunnyOrDie.com, former porn actress Sasha Grey stars in a new NSA recruitment video.
Update, 12:42 p.m. PT: Adds latest developments.