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Did a U.S. clerical mistake allow Edward Snowden to flee China?
That's Hong Kong's story. Meanwhile, the NSA leaker is apparently still stuck in transit in the Moscow airport
 
A man walks in a lobby at the capsule hotel Air Express in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, where NSA leaker Edward Snowden has reportedly spent some time.
A man walks in a lobby at the capsule hotel Air Express in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, where NSA leaker Edward Snowden has reportedly spent some time. AP Photo/Sergei Grits

U.S. officials are none too pleased with Hong Kong for allowing National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden to fly out of the Chinese territory despite a U.S. extradition request. Hong Kong is now turning the blame back on the U.S., saying the Justice Department documents referred to the fugitive as Edward J Snowden or Edward James Snowden, when the name on his passport is Edward Joseph Snowden.

"These three names are not exactly the same, therefore we believed that there was a need to clarify," Hong Kong Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen said on Tuesday. On top of the middle name issues, he added, the U.S. requests didn't include Snowden's passport number. "Until the minute of Snowden's departure, the U.S. government hadn't yet replied to our requests for clarification," Yuen said. "Hong Kong's government had no legal basis to block his departure."

Giles Surman, a lawyer with experience in Hong Kong extradition tells The Wall Street Journal that Hong Kong takes local freedoms seriously: "If you want to restrict someone's freedom to travel you need to get the paperwork."

American officials aren't buying it. "Is this the best they got?" a senior U.S. law enforcement official asks The Wall Street Journal.

A Justice Department spokeswoman says that not only was Snowden's image "widely reported through multiple news outlets," but Hong Kong also has its facts wrong: The U.S. extradition treaty with Hong Kong requires neither a middle name nor a passport number. "The treaty requires: (a) a description of the person; (b) an indication that a surrender request will follow; (c) a statement of the applicable crimes/punishments; (d) and a description of the facts. All of that was provided to Hong Kong." The story about needing "more information about his identity demonstrates that it was simply trying to create a pretext for not acting on the provisional arrest request," she says.

Both sides have plausible stories, says Hong Kong University criminal law expert Simon Young. Due to the "political sensitivities" of the case, he tells The Associated Press, "I think that the Hong Kong government was insisting on a fairly high standard of completeness.... They know that our courts will look at these things very closely and they don't take shortcuts."

At the same time, Hong Kong authorities are generally allowed to identify fugitives through unofficial channels. Snowden is hardly "some mystery figure," Young says. "The whole world knows what he looks like. So again I didn't see this presenting problems of identification."

Given America's own unreasonably strict standards of accuracy on travel papers, the Justice Department has little room to complain about Hong Kong being a stickler for details, says Marcy Wheeler at Emptywheel. "I'm not sure why DOJ thinks Snowden should be any different than every other American flier whose name must be correct before getting on a plane." And Hong Kong might have been too polite to mention it, but "there's an even bigger reason why any country would be crazy to hand over a person if the U.S. couldn't get his name right," she says.

German citizen Khalid el-Masri was kidnapped and tortured in Afghanistan for four years because the U.S. government mistook him for a guy named Khalid al-Masri. There was no telling who Hong Kong might have unintentionally turned over to an American black hole. Once upon a time, sure, other countries might have been able to take us at our word on something like this.... We're simply not trustworthy on that front anymore. [Emptywheel]

As for Snowden, his flight has apparently at least temporarily stalled in the huge transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, a kind of diplomatic no-man's land. Dozens of reporters scouring the airport have failed to locate him, but Russian President Vladimir Putin insists he hasn't left the transit area, and Russian news agencies report that he is staying in the zone's one hotel, Air Express. The BBC's Steve Rosenberg walks us through it:

If Snowden is stuck in the Sheremetyevo Airport transit zone, as Putin insists, "his situation is unusual, but for all its extraordinary elements of intrigue, it's not unique," says the AP's Jill Lawless. Snowden "is not the first person to be stranded in the legally ambiguous zone between the arrivals gate and the immigration desks of an international airport," and without a valid passport, he "could end up joining the roster of unwilling airport residents whose ordeals, suspended between states, have stretched on for months or even years."

"The most famous airport resident was Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian who spent 18 years inside Terminal 1 of Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport," says Lawless.

His airport life there developed a kind of domestic routine. He slept on a red plastic bench surrounded by his boxes and bags. The pharmacy took his phone calls and fast food restaurants provided him with meals. But it was also a Kafkaesque existence, without purpose. [AP]

Snowden is unlikely to spend anywhere near that long in the Moscow transit zone. But Ecuador's foreign minister warned this week that if Snowden applies for asylum there, it could be two months or more before the country reaches a decision.

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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