(MOSCOW) — Edward Snowden, the man who claims to have exposed vast, highly classified U.S. government surveillance programs, was once again a no-show at a Moscow airport for a flight to Cuba on Tuesday, while top U.S. and Russian diplomats traded sharp words over the 30-year-old contractor.
“We deem absolutely ungrounded and unacceptable the attempts we are witnessing to accuse the Russian side of violation of U.S. laws and almost a conspiracy, which, above all, are accompanied with threats,” Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow, according to a Russian news report.
Lavrov said Russia had nothing to do with Snowden’s travel plans, which he chose “independently.” He also said Snowden has not crossed a Russian border, implying he remains in the airport’s international transit zone.
Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, stunned U.S. officials over the weekend when he escaped Hong Kong, where he had been hiding for weeks, on a flight for Moscow, despite the U.S. leveling charges against him, including espionage. It was from a hotel room in Hong Kong days before that Snowden claimed to The Guardian newspaper to be behind a series of headline-grabbing stories about the NSA’s “horrifying” domestic and international surveillance programs.
Hong Kong officials said they had no legal basis for keeping Snowden from traveling, but White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on Monday that the U.S. government isn’t “buying” that excuse. Snowden’s passport had been revoked the day before the flight.
“This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant, and that decision unquestionably has a negative impact on [the] U.S.-China relationship,” Carney said.
From there, U.S. officials turned the stern diplomatic talk on Russia, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying it would be “very disappointing” if Snowden was “willfully allowed to board an airplane…and there would be without any question some effect on the relationship and consequences.”
Carney said the U.S. expects the Russian government to “examine the options and appropriately expel Mr. Snowden.”
Snowden is reportedly traveling with four laptops and a head full of U.S. government secrets, and while he denies working with anyone other than journalists, some current and former U.S. officials still fear that Chinese intelligence agents may have already stolen some secrets from him in Hong Kong and that the Russian intelligence service could be doing the same now.
“They might like to have him go to sleep while they play with his computers he’s brought along with him,” said former White House counter-terrorism advisor and current ABC News consultant Richard Clarke. “Maybe they’d like to make him an offer. Maybe they’d like to have a conversation.”
Early Monday, Snowden was booked on a flight from Moscow to Cuba and was then believed to head to toward Ecuador, where he has formally requested asylum, or to Venezuela. But his seat was empty on Monday and he didn’t appear to be on the Havana-bound flight on Tuesday either, raising questions about where he is and who may be with him.
Julian Assange, the founder of the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks, which he said is advising Snowden, would only tell reporters on Monday that Snowden is “in a safe place” with a WikiLeaks representative and that Snowden’s spirits are high.
Former undercover CIA agent Emily Brandwin, who posts on Twitter under the handle @CIAspygirl, said it appears some major world powers are left playing “hot potato, hot potato.”
“I think we’re all just collectively waiting to see where the music stops, to see where he lands,” she said. “It’s the most epic game of Marco Polo ever.”
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Ralph Ellis, Ben Wedeman and Michael Pearson, CNN
Ivana Kottasova and Armelle De Oliveira, CNN
Dave Gilbert, CNN
Holly Yan, CNN