Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Snowden had traveled from Hong Kong to Moscow using a letter of safe passage provided by an Ecuadoran official. That is incorrect: Snowden traveled using his U.S. passport. This version has been corrected.
Edward Snowden seems to be stranded.
Three weeks after Snowden revealed himself as the source of leaked top-secret documents on U.S. intelligence gathering, the former intelligence contractor is stuck in legal limbo in Russia. Although he has not been seen publicly in days, he is thought to be inside a transit area of a Moscow airport.
On Sunday, two of his strongest supporters — Julian Assange of WikiLeaks and President Rafael Correa of Ecuador — said it was unlikely that Snowden would leave there anytime soon.
“The United States, by canceling his passport, has left him for the moment marooned in Russia,” said Assange, whose anti-
secrecy organization has aided Snowden in his flight.
The United States canceled Snowden’s passport a week ago, after he was charged with espionage. Assange criticized that decision on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos”: “To take a passport from a young man in a difficult situation like that is a disgrace,” he said.
And in Ecuador on Sunday, Correa seemed to play down the chances that his country could offer Snowden a way out. For now, Correa told the Associated Press, Snowden was “under the care of the Russian authorities.”
“This is the decision of Russian authorities. He doesn’t have a passport. I don’t know the Russian laws. I don’t know if he can leave the airport, but I understand that he can’t,” Correa said. He said the case was out of Ecuador’s hands. “If [Snowden] arrives at an Ecuadoran embassy, we’ll analyze his request for asylum.”
Snowden’s escape plan was never a simple one. After first making himself one of the most wanted men in the world, he was attempting to hopscotch 11,000 miles from Hong Kong to Russia to Ecuador — perhaps with a stopover in Cuba.
To do it, he would have to stay ahead of U.S. law enforcement and a pack of news media — and to count on the caprices of three (or four) foreign governments.
Snowden made it one stop. He flew from Hong Kong to Moscow a week ago, apparently on his U.S. passport. It had already been revoked, but Hong Kong authorities said they had not received the official request from the U.S. government.
Now, Snowden’s flight has brought him to the transit area of Sheremetyevo International Airport. And to a dwindling set of options.
One is simply staying in the airport. If Snowden is not being detained by Russian authorities — and Russian officials have said that he is not — he could remain in an area reserved for international travelers making connections. As long as he does not go through passport control, Russian officials say, he would not legally cross into Russian territory.
If he wants to leave, however, Snowden would need travel documents to replace his canceled passport.
Earlier, it appeared that Ecuadoran officials might be willing to help him with this. On June 22, the Ecuadoran Embassy in London issued a safe-conduct pass in his name. (Assange himself is holed up at the same embassy, avoiding extradition to Sweden for questioning over allegations of sexual abuse).
But it seems unlikely that Ecuador would provide the same kind of help again.
On Sunday, Correa told the Associated Press that the Ecuadoran official who issued the pass had committed “a serious error” by not consulting officials back home. Correa said the consul would be punished, though he didn’t specify how.
Correa’s tone seemed to have shifted after a conversation with Vice President Biden on Friday. Where Correa had earlier been defiant, he now voiced respect for U.S. legal procedures.
“If he really could have broken North American laws, I am very respectful of other countries and their laws, and I believe that someone who breaks the law must assume his responsibilities,” Correa said, according to AP.
Snowden might be able to obtain travel documents from another country — one willing to showily defy the U.S. government. In Venezuela, for instance, President Nicolás Maduro recently praised Snowden for revealing the extent of U.S. surveillance.
“No one has up to this point formally asked us to give political asylum to this young person, Snowden,” said Maduro, who was scheduled to arrive in Russia on Monday for a trade mission. “If they asked us for it, we’d think about it, think about it. And it’s almost certain that we’d give it to him. Why? Because asylum is an international humanitarian right to protect those who are being pursued for noble causes.”
Snowden might also seek asylum from Russia itself.
On Sunday, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said Snowden is not the Kremlin’s concern. But he also noted that “public opinion on the subject is very rich,” and he pointed out that politicians and human rights defenders had spoken in support of offering Snowden asylum. “We are aware of that and take it into account.”
That could perhaps be a nod toward the possibility of asylum. Or not.
For now, only one country seems to be offering Snowden a certain way out of his airport limbo. It’s the one he doesn’t want to go back to.
“Mr. Snowden is hardly ‘marooned’ since he is still a United States citizen and his country is willing to take him back,” said Nanda Chitre, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department. “The U.S. government is prepared to issue individuals wanted on felony charges a one-entry travel document to return home.”
U.S. authorities charged Snowden last month with theft, “unauthorized communication of national defense information” and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.”
The charges were filed in federal court in Alexandria, whose jurisdiction includes the headquarters of contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden’s former employer. On Sunday, Assange argued that Snowden could not expect justice in that court.
“The jury pool is made up of the CIA, Pentagon, etc.,” Assange said. “There’s a . . . 99.97 percent chance that if you’re a target of the grand jury, you’ll be indicted. And a 99 percent chance that if you’re indicted by a grand jury, you will be convicted.”
Asked whether those statistics were correct, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney in that district declined to comment Sunday.
Assange was asked by Stephanopoulos whether WikiLeaks was in possession of other secrets that Snowden took with him.
“Look, there is no stopping the publishing process at this stage,” Assange said. “Great care has been taken to make sure that Mr. Snowden can’t be pressured by any state to stop the publication process.”
Forero reported from Bogota, Colombia. Kathy Lally in Moscow and Jia-Lynn Yang in Beijing contributed to this report.