Hong Kong: Edward Snowden has left for third country

The director of the National Security Agency defended the collection of telephone and internet data, saying he's "trying to protect Americans." General Keith Alexander said the two classified programs recently revealed by leaks are essential for U.S. security. Bob Orr reports.

Updated 10:35 a.m. ET

HONG KONG A former National Security Agency contractor wanted by the United States for revealing highly classified surveillance programs was 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.

Reporter Kevin O'Flynn told host Bob Schieffer on CBS' "Face the Nation" that Snowden landed in Moscow at around 9:15 a.m. ET. While his current whereabouts are unknown, most reports indicate he will not stay in Moscow, but will instead continue to another destination on Monday. Diplomats from at least two South American nations mentioned as possible final destinations for Snowden - Ecuador and Venezuela - were seen at the airport, although it's unclear whether they had any contact with Snowden.

Hong Kong's government did not identify his destination. A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was unaware of Snowden's whereabouts or travel plans.

Snowden, who has been in hiding in Hong Kong for several weeks since he revealed information on the highly classified spy programs, has talked of seeking asylum in Iceland.

However, both Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency and Reuters cited an unidentified Aeroflot official as saying Snowden would fly from Moscow to Cuba on Monday and then on to Caracas, Venezuela. Others have mentioned Ecuador as a possible final destination.

Interpol said there is no public Red Notice -- an international alert that an individual is wanted for arrest by an Interpol member country -- at the moment for Snowden.

A U.S. Department of Justice spokesperson, Nanda Chitre, told CBS News they had been informed Snowden had left Hong Kong.

"We will continue to discuss this matter with Hong Kong and pursue relevant law enforcement cooperation with other countries where Mr. Snowden may be attempting to travel," Chindre said.

The White House itself has not commented yet on Snowden's departure, which came a day after the United States made a formal request for his extradition and gave a pointed warning to Hong Kong against delaying the process of returning him to face trial in the U.S.

The Hong Kong government said in a statement that Snowden left "on his own accord for a third country through a lawful and normal channel."

It acknowledged the U.S. extradition request, but said U.S. documentation did not "fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law." It said additional information was requested from Washington, but since the Hong Kong government "has yet to have sufficient information to process the request for provisional warrant of arrest, there is no legal basis to restrict Mr. Snowden from leaving Hong Kong."

The statement said Hong Kong had informed the U.S. of Snowden's departure. It added that it wanted more information about alleged hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong by U.S. government agencies which Snowden had revealed.

The anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks took credit for helping Snowden leave Hong Kong, saying in a statement: "He is bound for a democratic nation via a safe route for the purposes of asylum, and is being escorted by diplomats and legal advisors from WikiLeaks."

WikiLeaks said Snowden asked for their help because of their expertise and experience.

Former Spanish judge Mr. Baltasar Garzon, legal director of Wikileaks and lawyer for Julian Assange is quoted as saying: "The WikiLeaks legal team and I are interested in preserving Mr Snowden's rights and protecting him as a person."

Snowden's departure eliminates a possible fight between Washington and Beijing at a time when China is trying to deflect U.S. accusations that it carries out extensive surveillance of American government and commercial operations. Hong Kong, a former British colony, has a high degree of autonomy and is granted rights and freedoms not seen on mainland China, but under the city's mini constitution Beijing is allowed to intervene in matters involving defense and diplomatic affairs.

Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the U.S., but the document has some exceptions, including for crimes deemed political.

The Obama administration on Saturday warned Hong Kong against delaying Snowden's extradition, with White House national security adviser Tom Donilon saying in an interview with CBS News, "Hong Kong has been a historically good partner of the United States in law enforcement matters, and we expect them to comply with the treaty in this case."

Snowden's departure came as the South China Morning Post released new allegations from Snowden that U.S. hacking targets in China included the nation's cellphone companies and two universities hosting extensive Internet traffic hubs.

He told the newspaper that "the NSA does all kinds of things like hack Chinese cellphone companies to steal all of your SMS data." It added that Snowden said he had documents to support the hacking allegations, but the report did not identify the documents. It said he spoke to the newspaper in a June 12 interview.

With a population of more than 1.3 billion, China has massive cellphone companies. China Mobile is the world's largest mobile network carrier with 735 million subscribers, followed by China Unicom with 258 million users and China Telecom with 172 million users.

Snowden said Tsinghua University in Beijing and Chinese University in Hong Kong, home of some of the country's major Internet traffic hubs, were targets of extensive hacking by U.S. spies this year. He said the NSA was focusing on so-called "network backbones" in China, through which enormous amounts of Internet data passes.

The Chinese government has not commented on the extradition request and Snowden's departure, but its state-run media have used Snowden's allegations to poke back at Washington after the U.S. had spent the past several months pressuring China on its international spying operations.

A commentary published Sunday by the official Xinhua News Agency said Snowden's disclosures of U.S. spying activities in China have "put Washington in a really awkward situation."

"Washington should come clean about its record first. It owes ... an explanation to China and other countries it has allegedly spied on," it said. "It has to share with the world the range, extent and intent of its clandestine hacking programs."

Members of Congress in both parties have accused Snowden of treason and demanded he be held to account for his role in leaking classified programs, which have stirred a contentious debate about whether the U.S. government has too much surveillance authority.

In reaction to the government's decision to charge Snowden, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said in a statement, "I've always thought this was a treasonous act. Apparently so does the U.S. Department of Justice."

A one-page criminal complaint unsealed Friday in federal court in Alexandria, Va., said Snowden engaged in unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information. Both are charges under the Espionage Act. Snowden also is charged with theft of government property. All three crimes carry a maximum 10-year prison penalty.

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