By Jethro Mullen and Michael Pearson
(CNN) — Speaking to reporters in Finland on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden remains in the transit zone at the international airport in Moscow.
“He is a transit passenger in the transit zone and is still there now,” Putin said. “Mr. Snowden is a free man. The sooner he selects his final destination point, the better both for us and for himself.”
Putin said Snowden’s arrival in Russia was “completely unexpected.”
(CNN) — In this high-stakes game of hide-and-seek, Edward Snowden appears to have the upper hand.
The exact whereabouts of the computer contractor who leaked secret information about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs are unknown.
Journalists, government officials and social media users around the world are busy trying to pinpoint his location.
Russia, the country where the United States has said it believes Snowden is located, on Tuesday lashed out at suggestions that it was complicit in his travels.
“I want to say, right away, that we have nothing to do with Mr. Snowden, or his movements around the world,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at a news conference in Moscow.
The White House is demanding that any country that Snowden enters give him up, so he can face espionage charges in the United States.
But Lavrov said that U.S. “accusations” against Russia over Snowden are “absolutely groundless and unacceptable.”
His comments further muddied the waters surrounding Snowden’s mysterious journey.
A flight from Moscow to Havana that Snowden was reportedly set to board took off Monday packed with journalists, including a CNN team, but without the 30-year-old American they were all hoping to interview.
Another Havana-bound flight took off Tuesday with no sign of Snowden aboard.
One person says he knows where Snowden is, but he isn’t telling.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange would only say Monday that the former NSA contractor is “in a safe place and his spirits are high.” The anti-secrecy group says it’s helping Snowden find asylum.
Snowden spent several weeks hiding out in Hong Kong and causing uproar in the United States by leaking classified NSA documents to journalists. He left the semiautonomous Chinese territory Sunday on a flight to Moscow.
Mystery in Moscow
A passenger on the flight from Hong Kong to Moscow told CNN that she saw Snowden on board. But the Russian Foreign Ministry has said he hasn’t entered Russia, implying that he may be somewhere on the transit side of the airport’s immigration process.
Lavrov repeated that stance Tuesday.
“He chose his itinerary on his own,” he said. “He has not crossed the Russian border.”
No journalists in Russia appear to have caught a glimpse of the slender, bespectacled face that has been splashed across TV screens, websites and newspaper front pages around the globe since Snowden revealed himself as the source of the controversial disclosures this month.
After more than 24 hours of confusion and false leads in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, the Guardian, the British newspaper that first published many of Snowden’s disclosures, asked on Monday, “Was he ever even really here?”
The U.S. government says it believes Snowden is in Russia. And Obama administration officials, including FBI Director Robert Mueller, have been urging the Russian government to send him back to the United States.
The White House is eager to avoid a repeat of what happened in Hong Kong, where authorities let Snowden leave despite a U.S. request for his arrest and extradition. Washington has described that move as a “serious setback” to building trust between the United States and China.
“We are just not buying that this was a technical decision by a Hong Kong immigration official,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday. “This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant.”
Beijing rejected the criticism.
“It is unreasonable for the U.S. to question Hong Kong as a government handling Snowden’s case in accordance with law, and it is groundless,” a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Tuesday. “The U.S.’ accusation of the Chinese central government is groundless.”
Meanwhile, the Obama administration doesn’t have much leverage with Moscow, according to Matthew Rojansky, an expert on U.S. and Russian national security at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“We really need Russian cooperation, I think, much more in most areas than the Russians need us,” he said.
U.S. diplomatic headache
Washington is also telling other countries where Snowden might end up — notably Ecuador, which says it’s analyzing an asylum request from Snowden — that they should hand him over should he land on their soil. They note that his U.S. passport has been revoked.
“The U.S. is advising these governments that Mr. Snowden is wanted on felony charges and as such should not be allowed to proceed in any further international travel other than is necessary to return him here to the United States,” Carney said.
But CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said the issue now “is much more of a political and diplomatic matter than it is a legal matter.”
“In an ordinary case, sure, you need a passport to get around,” Toobin said. “But here, where this case is causing increasing embarrassment for the United States, governments that want the United States to be embarrassed are only too happy to waive some of the technical legal rules.”
WikiLeaks says that Snowden has applied for asylum in multiple countries and that legally, Latin America is the best option for him.
He left Hong Kong on Sunday on a “refugee document of passage” issued by Ecuador, Assange said.
But on Tuesday, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said he didn’t know exactly where Snowden is right now.
The leak controversy
Snowden has acknowledged that he leaked classified documents about the NSA’s surveillance programs to the Guardian newspaper in Britain and to The Washington Post. The documents revealed the existence of programs that collect records of domestic telephone calls in the United States and monitor the Internet activity of overseas residents.
The disclosures shook the U.S. intelligence community and raised questions about whether the NSA is eroding American civil liberties.
Snowden worked as a Hawaii-based computer network administrator for Booz Allen Hamilton, an NSA contractor, before he fled to Hong Kong last month with laptops full of confidential information.
He told the Guardian that he exposed the surveillance programs because they pose a threat to democracy, but administration officials said the programs are vital to preventing terrorist attacks and are overseen by all three branches of government.
Carney questioned Snowden’s assertion that he acted in defense of democratic transparency, saying his argument “is belied by the protectors he has potentially chosen — China, Russia, Ecuador.”
“His failures to criticize these regimes suggests that his true motive throughout has been to injure the national security of the United States, not to advance Internet freedom and free speech,” Carney told reporters.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has criticized Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s government for pushing legislation that would roll back press freedoms, calling its policies increasingly repressive. But Snowden isn’t looking for “political nirvana,” said Glenn Greenwald, the columnist for the Guardian who broke Snowden’s revelations.
“He’s searching for a place where he can be safe and remain free and participate in the debate, and Ecuador seems to be the place he has chosen,” Greenwald told CNN’s “The Lead.”
In a letter read by Patino, the Ecuadorian foreign minister, on Monday, Snowden compared himself to Pvt. Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier accused of leaking classified information through WikiLeaks. He said U.S. officials have treated Manning inhumanely by holding him in solitary confinement, and he predicted a similar “cruel and unusual” fate for himself if he falls into U.S. hands.
Snowden has continued to drip-feed other allegations about NSA activities to the international news media. He said the NSA hacked into computers and networks in Hong Kong and China, an accusation that undermined U.S. criticisms of Chinese cyberespionage activities.
A Hong Kong paper, the South China Morning Post, reported Tuesday that Snowden took the job at Booz Allen early this year to “collect proof” about the NSA programs before disclosing them to reporters. Snowden told the paper in an interview this month that he intends to release more of the documents he took from the firm.
“If I have time to go through this information, I would like to make it available to journalists in each country to make their own assessment, independent of my bias, as to whether or not the knowledge of U.S. network operations against their people should be published,” the newspaper quoted Snowden as saying.
When he went public as the NSA leaker, Snowden said that he didn’t want to become the story. The focus should remain on the U.S. surveillance programs he had revealed, he said.
But right now, that’s not happening.
His extraordinary and mysterious journey is dominating the headlines. And the world is waiting to see where he materializes next.
CNN’s Phil Black, Matt Smith, Catherine E. Shoichet, Jill Dougherty, Carol Cratty, Nic Robertson and Alla Eshchenko contributed to this report.
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