After Edward Snowden was outside of Chinese airspace on Sunday, Hong Kong said that the National Security Agency leaker had boarded a plane to Moscow. On Monday, WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange, from his temporary home in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, said Snowden is in a "safe place." Early Tuesday, Russia's foreign minister said Snowden has not crossed into Russian territory.
So where, exactly, is he? Anybody who knows isn't saying at this point. The most likely place may be the international transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport. Snowden reportedly had a ticket to Cuba on Russian airline Aeroflot, but the pilot and reporters on the plane say he didn't show up for the flight (if he ever planned to).
The general sense you get from foreign policy analysts is that the various countries where Snowden may be, has been, or could end up — China, Russia, Cuba, and Ecuador, among them — are somewhere on the spectrum of being gleeful that Snowden is embarrassing the U.S., happy to have access to his U.S. national security secrets, and wary of overtly alienating America.
The New York Times and The Washington Post have detailed reports on Snowden's stay in Hong Kong and the series of behind-the-scenes communications between Snowden's local lawyers and Hong Kong's government, culminating in a reported offer of safe passage if Snowden exited the country. Snowden decided to take them up on the offer, because of fears he could spend years in jail fighting extradition, said his lawyer, Albert Ho. "If you were to deprive him of his computer, that would be totally intolerable."
On Tuesday, China's foreign ministry rejected as "baseless and unacceptable" U.S. suggestions that Beijing or Hong Kong had improperly aided Snowden's escape, despite the U.S. extradition request. But a source with ties to China's leadership tells Reuters that letting Snowden escape was a conscious choice on Beijing's part, as "the lesser of three evils":
"If Snowden was handed over to the United States, China would be perceived to be a running dog of the United States and be criticized by (Chinese and foreign) internet users sympathetic to Snowden.... Allowing Snowden to continue to stay in Hong Kong or come to the mainland would cause more trouble and headache.... Allowing Snowden to leave was the only option." [Reuters]
Russia is equally indignant. "I want to say straight away that we have no connection either to Mr. Snowden or to his relationship with American justice, or to his travels around the world," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said early Tuesday. "He chose his route independently, and we found out about it... through the media. He did not cross the Russian border." And any accusation that Russia is violating U.S. law by not extraditing Snowden is "absolutely unfounded and unacceptable," Lavrov added.
Still, in order to leave Russia, Snowden will have to obtain a Russian exit visa. The U.S. has revoked his passport, but WikiLeaks says it has provided Snowden with special travel documents from Ecuador. And aside from embarrassing a global rival, Russia might have other reasons to keep Snowden for a while, says Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institute. He's reportedly carrying NSA secrets on a thumb drive and/or several laptops, and "they don't want to waste this opportunity to extract what they can," she tells The Washington Post. The Russians "don't want Mr. Snowden to fly off too quickly."
The U.S. and Russia do not have an extradition treaty, but Moscow could easily detain Snowden and turn him over, Dimitri Simes at the Center for the National Interest tells CBS News. But Russia, like China and Ecuador, has strong political reasons to avoid doing so: It would be unpopular with a citizenry that, more likely than not, is on Snowden's side. For President Vladimir Putin, who's on less-than-friendly terms with President Obama, Simes says, sending Snowden back to America "could be a serious problem."
So Snowden is probably in limbo, legally and perhaps even in terms of trying to get from Point A to Point B. And while his revelations about NSA surveillance in the U.S. and abroad allow China's government-aligned People's Daily to laud his "his fearlessness that tore off Washington's sanctimonious mask," Snowden has his own questions to answer about his own purported flight path: China, Russia, Cuba, and Ecuador are useful if you want to escape the clutches of Uncle Sam, but none of them have very good records when it comes to Snowden's professed guiding principles of transparency, civil liberties, or freedom of the press.