Edward Snowden's dwindling options

The NSA leaker has sought asylum in 21 countries. His quest for a new home isn't going very well so far

Activists from the Internet Party of Ukraine perform during a rally supporting Edward Snowden in front of the U.S. embassy in Kiev on June 27.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

On Sunday night, Edward Snowden's traveling companion, WikiLeaks' Sarah Harrison, dropped off asylum requests to 19 countries at a Russian consulate in Terminal F of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport. Along with two previous requests, to Ecuador and Iceland, Snowden is now seeking political asylum in 21 nations, mostly in Europe and Latin America.

According to WikiLeaks, those countries include close U.S. allies like Germany, Spain, Italy, Austria, Ireland, and France, plus a handful of more neutral countries and several nations with frostier U.S. relations: Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, China, and Russia.

So far, nobody seems terribly enthusiastic about taking Snowden in. Ecuador, reportedly Snowden's original destination after leaving Hong Kong, distanced itself from the former National Security Agency contractor. President Rafael Correa, who said over the weekend that he had a "very cordial" conversation about Snowden with Vice President Joe Biden on Friday, placed the situation squarely in Russia's corner on Monday. Ecuador's ambassador to Britain had erred in issuing Snowden a safe-passage document, Correa told The Guardian, and his country won't consider granting the asylum request until the U.S. fugitive is in Ecuadorian territory.

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That leaves Snowden stuck in limbo in the international transit zone of Sheremetyevo airport, without a valid U.S. passport allowing him to legally enter Russia or leave the country. Snowden alluded to this situation — what he called the "extrajudicial penalty of exile" — in an oddly worded, logically suspect, but angrily defiant letter released by WikiLeaks:

The Obama administration has now adopted the strategy of using citizenship as a weapon. Although I am convicted of nothing, it has unilaterally revoked my passport, leaving me a stateless person. Without any judicial order, the administration now seeks to stop me exercising a basic right. A right that belongs to everybody. The right to seek asylum.

As he waits on his outstanding asylum requests — his leaked NSA secrets still causing a stir — Snowden isn't without options. Here are four possibilities:

1. Stay in Russia, but stop his leaking

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday that Snowden is free to leave the airport "if he wants to go somewhere and someone will take him," then implicitly offered Snowden a new home, saying Russia would never extradite him to the U.S. "If he wants to stay here, there is one condition," Putin added: "He must stop his work aimed at bringing harm to our American partners, as strange as that sounds coming from my mouth."

That condition is probably a deal-breaker for Snowden, Putin predicted — "Considering that he considers himself a human rights activist and a fighter for human rights, he probably doesn't plan to stop this work, so he should choose a host country and head there" — and it appears the Russian leader was right. On Tuesday, Snowden withdrew his request for asylum in Russia, Putin's spokesman announced.

Putin somehow managed to "look both like a defiant frenemy and a cooperative ally," says Julia Ioffe at The New Republic. Still, Putin's needle-threading makes sense. Snowden is popular in Russia, but "Russia — well, Putin — is not hostile to the U.S. when it thinks the U.S. finds itself in a position with which it can empathize." That usually means terrorism, but also includes surveillance. Why transparency-promoting WikiLeaks, which is advising Snowden, is friendly with Russia — maybe "out of my-enemy's-enemy necessity or out of something more" — is anyone's guess, says Ioffe.

2. Remain in Moscow's Sheremtyevo airport

Russia insists that the airport's transit zone — a huge area on the gate side of customs, with restaurants, shops, and even a hotel — is not Russian territory. "As a matter of international law, this is completely false," University of Michigan asylum law expert James C. Hathaway tells the Associated Press. "Moscow airport is as much a part of Russia as is the Kremlin." But the diplomatic convention lets Russia keep potentially problematic people at arm's length.

"Moscow's Sheremetyevo has seen crowds of refugees from countries including Afghanistan and Somalia living in corridors awaiting refugee status," with one Iranian human rights activist stuck in the transit area for nine months, says the AP's Jill Lawless. "Russia has been accused of using the airport as a convenient way of stalling asylum requests," but if Snowden is looking for a safe area with Wi-Fi and food, that hands-off approach may work to his advantage. In one extreme case, an Iranian spent 18 years in Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport.

3. Accept asylum in any country that bites

If any of the 20 remaining countries accept Snowden's asylum request, his lack of a passport won't be a problem. According to the United Nations, the country could give him a travel document, as happens with passport-less refugees being resettled to other countries. Who's likely to offer him asylum, though?

Thanks to some of Snowden's NSA leaks, plenty of countries are publicly miffed about U.S. spying: China, Russia, and most recently, European Union nations. But Russia is out, China already encouraged Snowden to leave once, and it's hard to imagine Germany or Spain granting him asylum.

That leaves maybe Iceland, or a handful of countries that don't like the U.S. or thrive off of defying America, like Cuba and Venezuela, and possibly Nicaragua. We'll know soon enough, but the initial signs aren't encouraging for Snowden. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, in Moscow for an oil and gas conference, defended Snowden on Tuesday but said he wouldn't carry him to Caracas aboard his presidential plane, as had been proposed by a Russian newspaper.

4. Turn himself over to the U.S., with conditions

Technically, Snowden is wrong: He's not a stateless person, he's a U.S. citizen. And he might be willing to return home, "if the Justice Department promises not to detain him before trial, not to subject him to a gag order, and lets him choose where his trial will take place," his father, Lonnie Snowden, said in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. In an interview with NBC's Michael Isikoff, the elder Snowden said he hasn't spoken with his son since April, and is "concerned about those who surround him," specifically WikiLeaks.

The Washington Post is on the same page. Snowden has "potentially damaging revelations" about national security he can still leak — or hand over to an asylum-promising adversary, says The Washington Post in an editorial. Preventing more leaks "should take precedence over U.S. prosecution of Mr. Snowden — which could enhance his status as a political martyr in the eyes of many both in and outside the United States." The Post continues:

The best solution for both Mr. Snowden and the Obama administration would be his surrender to U.S. authorities, followed by a plea negotiation. It's hard to believe that the results would leave the 30-year-old contractor worse off than living in permanent exile in an unfree country. Sadly, the supposed friends of this naive hacker are likely advising him otherwise. [Washington Post]

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