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Is Snowden ready to take flight? WikiLeaks hints at next move

By Ed Payne, CNN
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Thu July 11, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Washington analysis: Nicolas Maduro is pushing for political points in Venezuela
  • WikiLeaks fuels speculation about Edward Snowden's next move
  • It's unclear whether Snowden has accepted any offer of asylum
  • The trick will be avoiding the airspace of the U.S. and its allies

(CNN) -- As speculation grows over Edward Snowden's path to freedom, WikiLeaks teased that his "flight of liberty" campaign starts Wednesday, promising further details.

But so far, WikiLeaks has not lived up to the Twitter promise to provide more details. And the questions are piling up.

Is the future of the U.S. intelligence leaker, grounded at Moscow's airport for more than two weeks, no longer up in the air?

Not so fast.

It's unclear whether Snowden has accepted anyone's offer of asylum. And if he has, how does he intend to get there?

Speculation centers on Venezuela, which was the first to offer asylum. With both sides expressing interest, it only appeared to be a matter of time before it is confirmed.

Venezuela extended the asylum offer to Snowden last week, and on Monday President Nicolas Maduro received a formal asylum request from Snowden.

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Just who is Edward Snowden?

There were flurries of information Tuesday after a tweet by a Russia lawmaker announced that Snowden had accepted Venezuela's offer of asylum.

But the lawmaker who sent the tweet, Russian parliamentary spokesman Alexei Pushkov, deleted the message. WikiLeaks, which has been assisting Snowden in his asylum bid, denied the report in a Twitter post.

"The states concerned will make the announcement if and when the appropriate time comes," WikiLeaks said. "The announcement will then be confirmed by us."

If Snowden does accept, it resolves one issue in the saga, but sets the stage for the next chapter: How will he get from Moscow to Caracas?

Creative maneuvering

The trick would seem to be avoiding U.S. airspace or the airspace of nations friendly to the United States.

Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who faces espionage charges, would be wise to take a chartered jet on a route that goes over water the entire time, former CIA analyst Allen Thomson told Foreign Policy.

"Leave Moscow," he told the Foreign Policy. "Fly north to the Barents Sea, thence over to and through the Denmark Strait. Continue south, steering clear of Newfoundland until getting to the east of the Windward Islands. Fly through some convenient gap between islands and continue on to Caracas."

Kirk Koenig, president of Expert Aviation Consulting, told CNN that such a route would probably work, as it avoids the airspace of any countries that may try to ground the plane.

"That would probably be his only choice," he said.

Such a flight would not come cheap -- about $200,000 -- Koenig said.

"Where it gets more interesting is if they try to put him on an Aeroflot Russian Airlines flight nonstop to Havana, Cuba," he said. "The smart move would be to put him there as a passenger and hope nobody notices."

Would other countries make a commercial passenger jet land if they believe Snowden is on board? Given what happened to Bolivian President Evo Morales, it's possible, Koenig said.

Opinion: Why we're all stuck in the digital transit zone with Snowden

No place to fly

Last week, several European countries wouldn't let Morales' plane fly through their airspace, allegedly because of rumors that Snowden was aboard. The presidential aircraft instead made an unscheduled stop in Vienna, Austria, which became a sore spot for Morales and sparked outrage throughout Latin America.

On Tuesday, members of the Organization of American States passed a resolution condemning the incident, calling for France, Italy, Portugal and Spain to formally apologize. The United States and Canada dissented.

Security Clearance: No end in sight for NSA leak fallout

As speculation swirled about Snowden's next move, Maduro took the United States to task in a speech to military academy graduates, accusing Washington of persecuting Morales and threatening his life.

"Under those circumstances, several Latin American countries have decided for dignity and as a clear message to the empire, that we're not afraid of it, that the children of Bolivar do not fear the empire," Maduro said in a speech broadcast Tuesday on Telesur, a TV network based in Caracas.

Obama administration keeps close watch

Officials in national security agencies and on Capitol Hill were watching closely Wednesday for any signs that Snowden was preparing to leave Moscow for asylum in Venezuela.

Some are questioning Maduro's motivation, according to two U.S. officials who declined to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the information involved.

U.S. officials believe Maduro's decision to offer asylum to Snowden is aimed more at boosting the Venezuelan president's standing at home rather than engaging in any direct anti-American effort, according to an assessment by the Obama administration that the officials described to CNN.

Chinese Internet users back Snowden

CNN's Barbara Starr, Rafael Romo, Mariano Castillo, Mayra Cuevas and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.

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