WASHINGTON/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Nearly a month after Edward Snowden exposed top secret U.S. surveillance programs, the former spy agency contractor looks no closer to winning asylum to evade prosecution at home - and his options appear to be narrowing.
Stuck in legal limbo in a Moscow airport transit area and facing uncertainty over whether any of the destinations he is said to be contemplating - Ecuador, Venezuela and Cuba - will let him in, Snowden seems to be at the mercy of geopolitical forces beyond his control.
Unseen in public since arriving in Moscow last weekend, much remains unclear about Snowden’s overtures to various countries and how they have responded behind the scenes.
Russia may no longer have sufficient reason to continue harbouring Snowden if, as is widely believed, its intelligence services have already questioned him about the classified documents that he has admitted to taking from the National Security Agency.
The leftist government of Ecuador, already sheltering WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at its London embassy, is reviewing Snowden’s asylum request, though officials have sent mixed signals, suggesting the process could drag on for weeks.
Venezuela’s new president, Nicolas Maduro, has spoken favourably of granting refuge to Snowden but has taken no action, and he may think twice about risking a setback in tentative steps toward post-Chavez rapprochement with Washington.
And even if Ecuador or Venezuela decide to take Snowden, there is no guarantee that communist Cuba, the likely transit point for any flight from Moscow to those South American countries, would let him pass through and further complicate its own thorny relations with the United States.
Adding to Snowden’s troubles, the Obama administration, embarrassed by his disclosures on U.S. surveillance programs and his ability to dodge extradition when he fled Hong Kong last Sunday, is bringing heavy pressure to bear on any country that might consider accepting him, diplomats say.
“Thus far, he has chosen his destinations carefully,” said Carl Meacham, a foreign policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “His time, even in those countries, however, may be running out.”
Another potential complication is the role of anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, whose alliance with Snowden further politicizes his case. British legal researcher Sarah Harrison, a top WikiLeaks lieutenant and Assange confidante, escorted Snowden on the flight from Hong Kong to Moscow and is believed to have remained with him.
Russia remains the chief focus of the diplomatic scramble, and while President Vladimir Putin has clearly delighted in the chance to tweak Washington, there are questions whether he wants a prolonged saga that threatens deeper damage to already-chilly U.S.-Russia relations.
The former NSA contractor’s trek took him to Moscow because he had little choice of any other route that would keep him relatively safe from his American pursuers, former Russian intelligence officers and political and security analysts said.
“He has almost nowhere to go. He does not have much of a choice,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs and a member of an influential foreign policy council.
“Considering that he came out with a serious statement that is seen by the United States as treasonous, he needs to lay out an itinerary through countries where he can feel more or less certain that he will not be handed over.”
Despite Putin’s insistence that Russian intelligence agencies had not been “working with” Snowden, a Russian security service source said they would certainly have interviewed him.
U.S. authorities are already operating on a “worst case” assumption that all of the classified material in Snowden’s possession has made its way to one or more adversary intelligence services, U.S. national security sources said.
While top U.S. officials have warned of serious damage to national security interests from Snowden’s leaks, Lukyanov suggested that in intelligence terms he was probably not a very valuable prize. “He is not some kind of special agent,” he said.
Putin has built his return to the presidency on strident nationalism. If he hands Snowden back to the United States, he could face a backlash from Russians who see the American as a whistle-blowing hero.
“No matter what, we should not give him back. Let him go somewhere, or even stay in Russia - we are a big country and we have room for him as well as (French actor Gerard) Depardieu,” said Viktor, a pensioner who was at Sheremetyevo airport on Friday for a vacation flight to Ukraine.
However, Snowden’s protracted stay at the Moscow airport may have more to do with his problems reaching a deal with Ecuador than with any Russian desire to keep the American fugitive from moving on, the Russian security source said.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa has inserted his small Andean nation into the saga by offering asylum to Snowden, whom he has praised for exposing U.S. espionage efforts. However, he may also be trying to fill the void left by the death of Venezuelan socialist President Hugo Chavez - for a decade Washington’s most vocal adversary in the region.
While Ecuador seems like Snowden’s best bet as a place of refuge, its intentions are unclear.
Assange said earlier that Ecuadorean diplomats in London had issued a temporary travel document intended for Snowden, whose U.S. passport had been revoked. But the Quito government denied this.
In the meantime, Correa has said Ecuador cannot move forward with the asylum request until Snowden is in the country or makes his way to one of its embassies. Correa has indicated he is not planning to arrange transit for Snowden.
Returning to Quito on Friday from a tour of Asia, Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said his government had been involved in talks with the Russian government about Snowden’s fate, but without any result.
For now, Venezuela also was not looking promising for Snowden. Maduro has made clear several times that he would take a positive view of an asylum request, though he said on Thursday that “no one has asked us for humanitarian refuge.”
Since taking office in April, Maduro has at times used thunderous, Chavez-style, anti-U.S. rhetoric but he has also expressed interest in better relations with Washington.
Without help from a sympathetic government, Snowden’s ability to travel is limited. The increasingly grim predicament may explain why his father on Friday said he is reasonably confident the 30-year-old Snowden would return if certain conditions were met.
Those conditions include not detaining Snowden before trial, not subjecting him to a gag order and letting him choose the location of his trial, according to a letter that Lonnie Snowden’s lawyer, Bruce Fein, sent to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman and Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow, Jeff Franks in Havana, Brian Ellsworth in Quito, and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell, Tiffany Wu and Eric Beech