Did Bolivia try to sneak Edward Snowden out of Russia?
The Edward Snowden saga just keeps getting stranger.
The newest character to make a cameo is Bolivian President Evo Morales, whose presidential jet made an unscheduled stop in Vienna on Tuesday, reportedly being denied entry into Portugal and France's airspace while en route from Moscow back home to La Paz.
The reason? Rumors that Snowden was hitching a ride with Morales, according to Bolivian officials. The idea of Snowden being spirited out of his extended stopover at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport aboard a presidential jet was first proposed for — then denied — by Ecuador's Rafael Correa, who, like Morales, was in Moscow for an oil and gas conference.
The rumor isn't true, Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said from La Paz. "We don't know who invented this lie. We want to denounce to the international community this injustice with the plane of President Evo Morales." Bolivian Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra, who was on Morales' flight, disagrees with the first part of that statement. "This is a hostile act by the United States State Department which has used various European governments," he said in Vienna.
A U.S. Defense Department official tells Bloomberg that the Pentagon didn't ask any NATO allies to deny overflight rights to the plane, and the State Department referred all questions to France, Portugal, Spain, and the other countries involved. French officials said they couldn't confirm whether Morales was turned away, and Portuguese officials didn't respond to initial media inquiries.
Still, none of the rumors are implausible. Morales on Monday said Bolivia would certainly consider Snowden's asylum request, once it arrived. "Of course, Bolivia is ready to take in people who denounce — I don't know if this is espionage or monitoring," he told Russian media. "We are here." While Correa and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said they had no plans to sneak Snowden out of Russia, "Morales' remarks appeared to open the door," say Rick Gladstone and William Neuman in The New York Times. Or "at least that was the way they were interpreted."
Meanwhile, U.S. officials have been working diplomatic back channels to make their case why Snowden should be turned over to the U.S. to face his theft and espionage charges.
It appears, however, that Snowden really wasn't on Morales' airplane. Austria's interior ministry said they had checked the passports of all passengers on the aircraft, and agreed with the other basics of the Bolivians' story. "The plane was, of course, allowed to land, although many other countries apparently were concerned and afraid that Snowden was on board," Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told TV network ORF.
Assuming all this is true — his presidential plane was forcibly rerouted at the last minute over an unsubstantiated rumor — Morales has legitimate reason to be ticked off.
Now we can all turn our attention to Venezuela's Maduro, who is scheduled to spend Wednesday in Belarus before returning to Caracas. He said Venezuela would seriously consider Snowden's asylum request, once received, and gave a spirited defense of the NSA leaker. "This young man of 29 was brave enough to say that we need to protect the world from the American imperial elite, so who should protect him?" he asked, rhetorically. "All of mankind, people all over the world must protect him."
Maduro probably won't try to smuggle Snowden out of Russia, either — for one thing, official government aircraft usually land and take off from a different Moscow airport — but he is having a little fun with the story. "It's time for me to go," he said at the end of an interview with Russia Today. "Snowden is waiting for me."