In Moscow airport, NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s status, future uncertain

Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who released secret documents describing U.S. surveillance and intelligence programs, continues to elude U.S. authorities seeking his extradition. The U.S. government’s opponents abroad are enjoying this country’s embarrassment:

As Snowden continues his extraordinary flight from U.S. authorities, hopscotching the globe with the acquiescence of other governments, Washington’s critics have savored the irony of the world’s human rights champion being tripped up by revelations about its monitoring of phone and Internet communications.

Meanwhile, China, Russia, Cuba and Ecuador — countries with dismal human rights records — have cast themselves as the champions of political freedom.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, confirming Tuesday that Snowden was holed up inside a secure transit zone at the airport in Moscow, said Russian authorities saw no reason to extradite him. He also jabbed at the U.S. treatment of the former NSA contractor and his new benefactor, WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange.

“Assange and Snowden consider themselves human rights activists and say they are fighting for the spread of information,” Putin said. “Ask yourself: Should such people be extradited to be jailed or not?”

U.S. officials have rejected characterizations of Snowden as a whistleblower, while defending the NSA’s surveillance programs as critical to protecting national security interests. They have also pointed out the irony in Snowden’s decision to evade arrest by traveling to Hong Kong, a Chinese territory, as well as Russia — “powerful bastions of Internet freedom,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry quipped recently.

Colum Lynch

In Washington, the NSA withdrew a fact sheet describing its programs that lawmakers had challenged as inaccurate:

In a letter to Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Alexander said he agreed that the fact sheet posted on the NSA Web site last week “could have more precisely described” the requirements governing the collection of e-mail and other Internet content from U.S. companies.

NSA spokeswoman Judith Emmel would not explicitly acknowledge that the fact sheet had been removed from the agency’s Web site. Instead, she referred to the text of a 2008 law that governs NSA surveillance programs.

“Given the intense interest from the media, the public, and Congress, we believe the precision of the source document (the statute) is the best possible representation of applicable authorities,” Emmel said in a prepared statement sent by e-mail to The Washington Post.

The withdrawal of the fact sheet underscores the difficulties the Obama administration has faced in its efforts to reassure the public about surveillance programs that have swept up data on millions of Americans and that operate under legal guidelines that are both classified and complex.

Greg Miller and Ellen Nakashima

Snowden, meanwhile, apparently remains in a transit zone, a diplomatic no-man’s-land, somewhere in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport:

If he intends to stay in the airport for a while – a former official with Russia’s immigration service suggested that he could stick around “indefinitely” – he’ll join a short but prominent list of politicized activists and refugees who have found themselves stranded in legal limbo between the arrival gate and customs. . .

In fact, parking political headaches at Sheremetyevo is old hat for the Russians. Over at Foreign Policy, Christian Caryl describes the small colonies of Somali and Afghan refugees who used to “[sleep] on pieces of cardboard in secluded corners on that second floor, or [wash] up in the bathrooms” of Sheremetyevo’s Terminal F. Russia didn’t have a procedure for processing the refugees, so it was easier to leave them in the transit zone until they appealed to the U.N.’s refugee organization for social services and asylum.

But Russia is by no means the only country to use the “transit zone” excuse to delay action on controversial visitors. All those jokes comparing Snowden’s case to the Tom Hanks film “The Terminal”? They have a distinctly unromantic basis in the life of Iranian Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who lived in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport for 18 years after Iran expelled him.

Caitlin Dewey

Some have speculated that Snowden might try to flee to Ecuador via Cuba, although Cuban authorities promised that they would no longer allow U.S. fugitives into the country in 2006:

Cuba’s 2006 agreement is nowhere near binding. The country could surely offer to assist Snowden if it wanted to. The point is that Havana doesn’t seem to want to do this sort of thing anymore. In 2007, around the time of the agreement, the U.S. estimated that Cuba was harboring 70 American fugitives. And these were not necessarily whistleblowers or activists. The most famous, Charlie Hill, is wanted for murdering an Arizona state trooper and hijacking an airplane. Another killed a New Jersey state trooper.

This was back in the Cold War, after all, when the U.S. was trying to topple Fidel Castro, who wanted to do whatever he could to needle the Americans. Today, the U.S.-Cuba stand-off is thawing. There are more and more Cubans economic migrants to the United States, which began easing travel and money transfer restrictions during President Obama’s first term. Cuba reciprocated in October. The death of Venezuela’s anti-American leader, Hugo Chavez, raised hopes that the U.S. and Cuba might finally be ready to move past decades of hostility.

Other than Cuban citizens themselves, who are held back by the U.S. embargo that makes it tough for them to even get Internet access, few people would benefit more from easing U.S.-Cuba tensions than the Cuban leadership. This is probably not a moment when the Cuban leaders are trying to throw sand in America’s face, for example by defying an earlier pledge not to harbor fugitives.

Max Fisher

Some opponents of President Obama in the United States have been frustrated that the administration has failed to convince first China and now Russia to turn over Snowden. Max Fisher argues that these criticisms are misplaced:

For the moment, Moscow appears to be holding firm against Washington’s demands. Within the United States, that’s prompted some alarm over not just Russia’s refusal – which is not shocking – but America’s apparent inability to force its will on the issue. From Washington’s point of view, Snowden is an American fugitive wanted on serious charges, hanging out at the Moscow airport, and we can’t even compel his release. Whatever happened to American power abroad?

It turns out, though, that for all of the United States’ wealth and military might, this has never really translated into an ability to dictate to foreign countries. Sovereign states and their leaders tend to do what they perceive is within their best interests. Right now, extraditing Snowden would not seem to be in either Russia’s or Putin’s interests. Refusing the extradition request, on the other hand, reaps all sorts of benefits: It allows Putin to portray himself at home as standing up the Americans, satisfies the desire to poke Washington in the eye and could hypothetically grant them some access to Snowden’s information.

So how do you change that calculus? It’s not clear you can. Were the U.S. and Russia closer allies, with all the cooperation and mutual interests that entails, then Washington might have more leverage with Moscow. But despite the Obama administration’s efforts at a “reset,” the relationship has been pretty sour. Threats or foot-stomping would actually risk entrenching Putin, increasing his incentives to defy what would be seen in Russia as “bullying.”

Max Fisher

For past coverage of this story, continue reading here.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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