ABC NEWS -- Edward Snowden, the man who claims to have leaked a trove of classified information about U.S. spy programs, failed to board his flight from Moscow to Cuba today, an apparent hitch in his sudden, complex escape from Hong Kong to South America.
Snowden, a 30-year-old former contractor for the National Security Agency, twice checked in for a 6:10 a.m. ET flight from Moscow to Havana, but did not board the plane, according to ABC News reporters in Moscow and airport officials. Over the weekend Snowden stunned U.S. officials by fleeing from Hong Kong, where he's been in hiding for weeks, for Moscow, despite the U.S. having filed charges against Snowden including espionage and an extradition request made to Hong Kong. U.S. officials said Hong Kong took days to respond to that request and, when it did, Hong Kong officials said there were problems with the request. The next thing the U.S. knew, Snowden had disappeared again.
Snowden was last believed to be in the transit zone of the Moscow airport and has no visa to officially enter the country without special permission from the Russian government.
Some of the U.S. officials blindsided by Snowden's quick split from Hong Kong told ABC News that the Hong Kong government was playing a double-game by generating pointless red tape, which has raised fears that Chinese intelligence operatives had more time and opportunity to copy Snowden's four laptop hard drives – a feat that wouldn't be too difficult for the Russian intelligence service to do as well.
"I wouldn't be surprised if one of those groups hadn't done so already," one senior U.S. intelligence official told ABC News Monday.
"It's fairly easy to do with right equipment," the official explained. "They get you when you leave it in your hotel room or even at the airport when they get you in an interrogation room at immigration."
Whether Snowden has handed over any of his pilfered NSA files to foreign intelligence services is not known, though last week he denied any direct contact with the Chinese government. Snowden publicly confessed to being the source for several headline-grabbing reports from The Guardian and The Washington Post earlier this month about the NSA's vast domestic and international surveillance programs.
Today an attorney for Snowden, Albert Ho, told ABC News that Beijing was the real force behind Hong Kong's actions, or lack thereof, over Snowden. Ho said Snowden had written the Hong Kong government seeking written assurances he would not be detained if he tried to leave the country, but Hong Kong never responded. Snowden cancelled his trip out of the country Saturday, fearing he may be cuffed in the airport, and then suddenly reversed course and decided to proceed, Ho said.
Could Snowden's NSA Secrets Be Stolen?
Snowden's flight itinerary booked for today – with a stopover in Cuba before reportedly planning to head to either Venezuela or Ecuador -- heightened concerns not only about his personal motives but about the ease with which several governments unfriendly to the U.S. could copy the hard drives of his reported four laptops along the route, whether he invites them to or not, sources said.
"Does anybody think he's that stupid? That he doesn't know what a state like Russia or Cuba is capable of in terms of disk imaging?" another U.S. official familiar with the Snowden case told ABC News on Sunday. "He isn't that naive. What they can do to penetrate what he's got compared to what he can do to encrypt stuff is something he understands very well."
A program under the Department of Homeland Security allows Customs and Border Protection officers at international entry points to "image" -- or make a copy of -- the hard drives of laptops carried by travelers entering the country who have possible terror ties or have otherwise raised suspicion for criminal activity.
The FBI has amassed considerable expertise at cracking encrypted hard drives of captured al Qaeda figures, and both the Secret Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have perfected ways to penetrate encrypted systems of the savviest criminals.
Imaging a hard drive is relatively simple. Once the hard drive is copied, computer forensics experts can take their time exploiting or decrypting it at their leisure after the laptop and its owner are long gone.
Meanwhile, American security officials are still steamed over Snowden's escape from Hong Kong while they were negotiating his capture with Chinese officials in the sprawling city of eight million.
"They knew late Friday that we were working to answer their questions about the fugitive deportation request and at no point did Hong Kong give us any indication that there was a problem," a U.S. official told ABC News.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Justice had worked into the weekend to address Hong Kong's questions about the warrant for Snowden's apprehension. Senior Obama administration officials closely monitored the effort to bring the former Booz Allen contractor to justice for allegedly leaking highly classified files to three newspapers.
"Then we all woke up Sunday morning and he was into the wind," the U.S. official said of Snowden's Aeroflot leg from Hong Kong to Moscow.
ABC News' Tanya Stukalova and Dragana Jovanovic contributed to this report.