Hong Kong officials say the US government got National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden's middle name wrong in documents it submitted to back a request for his arrest.
Mr Snowden hid in Hong Kong for several weeks after revealing secret US surveillance programs. Hong Kong allowed him to fly to Moscow on Sunday, saying the request for his arrest did not fully comply with its requirements.
Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen said that discrepancies in the paperwork filed by US authorities were to blame, although the US Justice Department denied that.
Mr Yuen said Hong Kong immigration records listed Mr Snowden's middle name as Joseph, but the US government used the name James in some documents and referred to him only as Edward J Snowden in others.
“These three names are not exactly the same, therefore we believed that there was a need to clarify,” he said. Mr Yuen said authorities also did not provide Snowden's passport number.
The decision to let Mr Snowden leave Hong Kong angered the White House, which said it damaged US-Chinese relations.
The Justice Department rejected the notion Hong Kong had required clarification about Mr Snowden's middle name - or that it needed his passport number, saying the US had provided to Hong Kong all that was required under the terms of their extradition treaty.
“The fugitive's photos and videos were widely reported through multiple news outlets. That Hong Kong would ask for more information about his identity demonstrates that it was simply trying to create a pretext for not acting on the provisional arrest request,” a spokeswoman said.
Mr Yuen said the confusion over Mr Snowden's identification and his passport were among factors that delayed an arrest. He said the government requested clarification from its counterparts in the US on Friday.
“Up until the moment of Snowden's departure, the very minute, the US Department of Justice did not reply to our request for further information. Therefore, in our legal system, there is no legal basis for the requested provisional arrest warrant,” Mr Yuen said. In the absence of such a warrant, the “Hong Kong government has no legal basis for restricting or prohibiting Snowden leaving Hong Kong.”
Mr Snowden flew from Hong Kong to Moscow and was expected to seek asylum in Ecuador.
Mystery surrounds his whereabout after Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Mr Snowden was in the transit area of Sheremetyevo Airport. Mr Putin said he had not passed through immigration and was free to go where he liked.
He booked a seat on a Havana-bound flight on Monday en route to Venezuela, but did not board the plane. His ultimate destination was believed to be Ecuador.
But the US move to annul Mr Snowden's passport may have severely complicated his travel plans. Exiting the transit area would require either boarding a plane or passing through border control, both of which require a valid passport or other documentation.
Hordes of journalists armed with laptops and photo and video cameras have camped in and around the airport, looking for Mr Snowden.