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Hasty Exit Started With Pizza Inside a Hong Kong Hideout

Edward Snowden
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Edward Snowden

Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who has acknowledged leaking numerous documents about American surveillance operations around the world, planned his escape from Hong Kong over a surreptitious dinner of pizza, fried chicken and sausages, washed down with Pepsi.

It was a cloak-and-dagger affair. Mr. Snowden wore a cap and sunglasses and insisted that the assembled lawyers hide their cellphones in the refrigerator of the home where he was staying, to block any eavesdropping. Then began a two-hour conversation during which Mr. Snowden was deeply dismayed to learn that he could spend years in prison without access to a computer during litigation over whether he would be granted asylum here or surrendered to the United States.

Staying cooped up in the cramped Hong Kong home of a local supporter was less bothersome to Mr. Snowden than the prospect of losing his computer.

"He didn't go out, he spent all his time inside a tiny space, but he said it was O.K. because he had his computer," said Albert Ho, one of Mr. Snowden's lawyers. "If you were to deprive him of his computer, that would be totally intolerable."

(Read More: US Attacks China as Snowden Stays Free)

After the meeting, Mr. Ho was sent to ask the Hong Kong government if Mr. Snowden would be released on bail if he were arrested or whether he would be allowed to leave the country.

A person with detailed knowledge of the Hong Kong government's deliberations said that the government had been delighted to receive the questions. Leung Chun-ying, the chief executive, and his top advisers had been struggling through numerous meetings for days, canceling or postponing other meetings, while trying to decide what to do in response to an American request for Mr. Snowden's detention, even as public opinion in Hong Kong seemed to favor protecting the fugitive.

But Mr. Snowden's choice of Mr. Ho to represent him raised a problem, said the person with knowledge of the government's deliberations, who insisted on anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivities in the case. Mr. Ho, a member of the territory's legislature for nearly 20 years, is a former chairman of the Democratic Party and a longtime campaigner for full democracy here, to the irritation of government leaders of the territory, which was returned by Britain to China in 1997.

"The Hong Kong government doesn't trust him," the person said, adding that the government also did not want to be involved in any direct negotiations with Mr. Snowden. So it found an intermediary, someone with longstanding connections to the local government but not in office, to bypass Mr. Ho and contact Mr. Snowden.

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The intermediary told Mr. Snowden on Friday night that the government could not predict what Hong Kong's independent judiciary would do, but that serving jail time while awaiting trial was a possibility. The intermediary also said that the Hong Kong government would welcome Mr. Snowden's departure, Mr. Ho and the person who insisted on anonymity said. Both declined to identify the intermediary.

Mr. Snowden went through the same security and immigration channels as most passengers at the airport, rather than a special channel usually used for people involved in highly political cases — a sign that the Hong Kong government wanted to minimize its involvement in Mr. Snowden's departure, Mr. Ho said.

At the same time, the Hong Kong government's encouragement for Mr. Snowden to leave had convinced him that staying was risky because the Hong Kong government might not be on his side. "He would not like to fight with the Hong Kong government, with the Chinese government and the U.S. government" against him, Mr. Ho said.

(Read More: China Said to Have Made Call to Let Leaker Depart)

Mr. Ho said that the disclosure late Friday evening of a sealed indictment against Mr. Snowden in the United States had prompted his client to become considerably more anxious about staying in Hong Kong.

Mr. Ho said that if the Hong Kong government had not assured Mr. Snowden of safe passage to the airport and exit from the territory, his client intended to seek the advice of Stephen Young, the United States consul general here, whom Mr. Ho knows socially. But the Hong Kong government's assurance of safe passage meant that this plan was never discussed in depth, Mr. Ho added.

Obama administration officials expressed annoyance on Sunday that Hong Kong let Mr. Snowden get away. But the person with knowledge of the Hong Kong government's deliberations said that there was considerable annoyance in Hong Kong about Washington's handling of the case.

(Read More: US Warns Countries Against Snowden Travel)

Mr. Ho said that Mr. Snowden had not been working for any government other than the United States. "He believed he was doing the right thing, serving the people," Mr. Ho said, later adding, "Certainly he is not a spy for anybody — Russia, China."

Mr. Snowden said in an interview published Monday by The South China Morning Post that he took a job as a contractor for Booz Allen Hamilton in order to gain access to N.S.A. surveillance programs.

"My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the N.S.A. hacked," he said on June 12. "That is why I accepted that position about three months ago."

Mr. Snowden, who just turned 30, came to Hong Kong from Honolulu without a well-thought-out plan, while overestimating how free he would be to move around Hong Kong after his disclosures and underestimating the public attention he would receive, Mr. Ho added.

"I really think he's a kid, I think he never anticipated this would be such a big matter in Hong Kong," Mr. Ho said.

When Mr. Snowden came to Hong Kong from Hawaii in late May, he looked up a person whom he had met on a previous vacation here. That person, whom Mr. Ho declined to identify but described as a well-connected Hong Kong resident, became Mr. Snowden's "carer." Mr. Snowden accepted an invitation to stay in the home of one of that person's friends when he checked out of the Mira Hotel on June 10, and the individual put him in touch with two local lawyers.

(Read More: US Files Charges Against Snowden in NSA Surveillance Case)

They were Robert Tibbo, a barrister who specializes in human rights and refugee law, and Jonathan Man, an associate at Ho Tse Wai, Philip Li & Partners, one of Hong Kong's best-known law firms.

Mr. Ho, a senior partner at that firm, said he met Mr. Snowden for the first time on the evening of the pizza dinner.

Mr. Snowden said little until they had arrived at a home, where he took Mr. Man aside and told him that "all the phones should be put in the refrigerator, the entire phones, and then he became very outspoken," Mr. Ho said.

When Mr. Snowden went to the airport, he had a plan to reach a country where he believed he could obtain asylum, partly from discussions with Sarah Harrison, a WikiLeaks adviser who had come to Hong Kong and begun assisting Mr. Snowden, Mr. Ho said. As for Mr. Snowden's final intended destination, Mr. Ho said that it was almost certainly not Iceland or Cuba and that Mr. Snowden intended only to pass in transit through Moscow. He refused to discuss whether his destination was Ecuador.

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