NSA leaker Edward Snowden was reportedly traveling to Ecuador on Sunday to pursue political asylum, and the question on many casual observers' lips is: Why?
The move comes a year after the small South American nation offered WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange safe haven at its London embassy.
And Assange is now lending his support to Snowden.
"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," the anti-secrecy group said in a statement, noting that they are giving the one-time CIA contractor legal counsel. "Once Mr. Snowden arrives in Ecuador his request will be formally processed."
WikiLeaks said that Snowden — who is charged with espionage for allegedly leaking information about top-secret U.S. government surveillance programs — was “accompanied” by former Spanish judge Balthasar Garzon, who is WikiLeaks’ counsel and Assange’s personal lawyer.
It was not immediately obvious why, exactly, Snowden chose to seek asylum in Ecuador, although the country’s association with Assange may offer some clues, said Fordham Law School professor Andrew Kent.
“Ecuador clearly has some kind of history of sticking their finger in the eye of the United States on security issues,” Kent said.
Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s left-leaning third-term president, is a vocal critic of U.S. foreign policy and Western economic influence in Latin America. And he is part of a cadre of Latin American leaders — including Raúl Castro of Cuba and the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela — perceived to have an anti-American political worldview.
A sense of political kinship often helps an asylum-seeker decide where to go, said Robert J. Anello, a New York attorney who has handled extradition cases.
"A lot of people choose a country where they think the government will be sympathetic," Anello said.
Ecuador's foreign minister said Monday in Hanoi, Vietnam, that his government is analyzing an asylum request from Snowden, the Associated Press reported.
"We are analyzing it with a lot of responsibility," Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told reporters through a translator at a hotel on his way to a meeting with Vietnam's foreign minister.
Patino said the decision "has to do with freedom of expression and with the security of citizens around the world," the AP reported. He did not say how long the decision would take.
Ecuador is among 109 countries that have a bilateral extradition treaty with the U.S., according to the State Department. However, the treaty does not specify espionage as an extraditable offense, Kent said.
"There's nothing that really obviously covers what Snowden allegedly did," Kent said.
Other crimes listed in the treaty — including larceny, obtaining property by false pretenses, and fraud — could conceivably be used by officials to extradite someone accused of espionage, he said.
Yet while Ecuador is seemingly turning into a haven for digital desperadoes, the country has a mixed track record on press freedoms.
The Ecuadorean legislature earlier this month passed a restrictive media law, establishing government-run media overseers and imposing sanctions on citizens who tarnish "people's good name," the Associated Press reported. The measure created several government commissions authorized to level civil and criminal penalties against journalists.
The legislation could run counter to statements made by Correa in June 2011 in an interview with Assange, just weeks before the president offered the WikiLeaks firebrand political asylum in Ecuador's embassy, where he remains.
"We believe, my dear Julian, that the only things that should be protected against information sharing and freedom of speech are those set in the international treaties, in the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights: the dignity and the reputation of people, and the safety of people and the State," Correa said during an appearance on Assange's defunct television talk show.
"The rest, the more people find out about it, the better."