NSA leaker Edward Snowden is still holed up in a Russian airport
His unpredictability, boldness and luck have served him well
But he doesn't have many asylum options, and he may be low on funds
If the hunt for Edward Snowden were a Hollywood movie, the climactic music would be thundering and the final scene playing out: An Aeroflot passenger jet screams into U.S. airspace, while a sweaty guy in a hoodie clutches a laptop in first class.
At the White house, the president slams his fist down, knowing he can’t order a military strike on a civilian plane. Cuba looms. Then an undercover agent posing as another passenger gasps for air, clutches his chest and grunts, “Heart attack!”
The plane dives to an emergency landing in Miami, feds swarm aboard and Snowden is off to the Iron Bar Hilton. Dolly back. Fade to black.
But this is not a movie, and it probably won’t end that way.
Indeed, even as Snowden appears to be pursuing an extension on his stay in Russia or an asylum run to Latin America; even as he issues a written statement saying, “I announce today my formal acceptance of all offers of support or asylum,” John Pike with GlobalSecurity.org is not convinced that U.S. agents can stop him.
“There is no way that they’re going to grab him as he walks across the tarmac, and once he is wheels up, what? They’re going to grab him in Havana? Probably not. I don’t think they’ve got any good options now.”
So Snowden gets away? The short answer is yes. The long one is no; he doesn’t have a prayer.
Understanding this contradiction involves looking at what both the government and Snowden have in their favor. Let’s start with his reasons for hope, because frankly, that should take less time.
He’s been bold and lucky
Snowden has been proactive, unpredictable and bold. He had the foresight to hightail it from his home in Hawaii to Hong Kong before rolling out his trove of stolen secrets. When Asia heated up, he finished his Pepsi and pizza and took off for Russia, making the unexpected dash look as easy as a noon flight to Chicago.
He’s kept a surprisingly low profile for a guy who clearly relishes the image of an international freedom fighter. He’s made a few comments to a Chinese newspaper, but in the only image we’ve seen since he arrived in Russia, he does not look like an action hero. He is sitting at a table with members of Human Rights Watch looking like … well, a guy stuck in an airport.
He’s also been lucky. The White House has had to repeatedly defend both the failure to cancel his passport sooner and its diplomatic inability to get either the Chinese or the Russians to hand him over.
In addition, the Obama administration has a political problem. On the one hand, President Obama would clearly like to frog march Snowden into a federal court before the next softball game on the South Lawn, and plenty of Democrats would love to see just such a play.
“You have part of the party that has been very proud to shake off some of the 1960s Peacenik label,” says Van Jones, a former Obama adviser who’s now a CNN contributor, “and they’re proud to be tough on national security questions … and you have a part of the base that doesn’t like that. I put myself in that part of the base.”
That part is angry at the White House for running the surveillance program that Snowden revealed, and it’s furious that he is being called a criminal. So much so that when U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi offered a normally supportive gathering of liberals the tepid assessment that Snowden “did violate the law in terms of releasing those documents,” she was booed. She responded by saying, “I know that some of you attribute heroic status to that action but … you don’t have the responsibility for the security of the United States.”
Jones accepts that Obama’s team must pursue Snowden. “They have to chase him down, and they have to catch him, and they have to prosecute him, because that’s what governments do when people spill state secrets. (But) if you look at the polling numbers, a lot of people have some sympathy for Snowden, because everyone has been on a job where something shady was happening and they didn’t know what to do.”
It’s true. A Time poll found that more than half of all respondents thought Snowden did a good thing, and when the field is narrowed to younger people, a key constituency for Obama, approval for his actions soars to 70%.
Add the implicit threat that Snowden may have even more embarrassing secrets to spill out of his laptops, and he appears to have a fair number of things working in his favor. Here is what doesn’t.
Where could he go, and how would he pay for it?
For starters, he is running out of real estate. By all accounts, the feds are working the diplomatic back channels like gerbil wheels, furiously trying to persuade other countries to deny him refuge. No less than Vice President Joe Biden made a phone call to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa when that country was leading the list of possible South American hideouts.
The New York Times quotes an unnamed State Department official as saying, “There is not a country in the hemisphere whose government does not understand our position at this point.” In other words, the message from the U.S. government to everyone is clear and loud: take Snowden in at your peril.
He knows it. In his written statement, he says, “The government and intelligence services of the United States of America have attempted to make an example of me, a warning to all others who might speak out as I have. I have been made stateless and hounded for my act of political expression.”
The strategy seems to be working. Out of almost 200 countries on the planet, the number willing to consider hosting Snowden appears to be down to three: Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia. And even if he makes it to one of them, that’s not necessarily a guarantee of long-term safety. Deals can grow stale. Politics can change.
“Venezuela has not always been implacably hostile to the United States,” security analyst Pike points out, “and any time there is a big political change in any of these countries, the first thing the American ambassador is going to ask for is Snowden. Eventually, they will turn him over.”
Snowden may also be in financial jeopardy. As an employee of security contractor Booz Allen in Hawaii, he was reportedly making $120,000 annually, or a little more than half as much as it would cost to charter a G5 private jet from Moscow to any of his possible refuges. Right now, unless he’s picked up a part-time job slinging burgers at Sheremetyevo International Airport, he’s not making any money. Sure, some of his supporters are trying to raise funds to help, but his most robust defender, WikiLeaks, is struggling with serious financial troubles. And the group still has Julian Assange’s legal problems to pay for.
In sum, Snowden appears to have not calculated the long-term ramifications of going on the lam. “He’s sort of like the Tsarnaev brothers,” Pike says, in reference to the pair accused of the Boston Marathon bombings. “There was no follow-up plan. He just thought this one brief moment of glory was going to bend history, and he had no plan after that. He’s going to be radioactive until the end of time.”
And there is this: He’s made no secret of what he did or why. He has effectively confessed to everything. That makes it harder for any harboring nation to plead ignorance of the facts or accept that this is all purely political. Saying he did it to defend an important constitutional principle has won great admiration from some quarters, but it will probably hold about as much weight in court as the arguments of tax dodgers who insist that the 16th Amendment was never ratified.
A 1970s escape that worked
That said, it is not impossible that Snowden may yet rise above these myriad difficulties and forever elude the long arm of the law. That is what has happened with JoAnne Chesimard, or, as she has been known for decades now, Assata Shakur.
Back in 1973, she was a member of the Black Liberation Army and implicated by authorities in a series of violent, radical activities, including bank robbery and kidnapping. When she and some cohorts were stopped by state troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike, a hellish gun battle erupted, leaving a trooper and one of her companions dead. After a lot of legal fits and starts, in which many of the previous charges withered away, Shakur was convicted and sent to prison for murder.
But she did not stay there. In 1979, armed members of the BLA staged a jail break. Shakur eluded the best efforts by police to track her down, aided by people who believed her claim that she had been wrongly imprisoned for her political beliefs. After a few years, she sought greater security by fleeing to Cuba. Just this spring, the FBI made her the first woman ever on its list of top 10 terrorists. And yet she still lives freely just 90 miles from Florida, where with the help of the Cuban government she has defied calls for her extradition year after year.
Can Snowden again beat the odds and pull off such an escape, to spend the rest of his life posting polemics against Big Brother and sipping mojitos? “I just don’t know,” says Jones, the former Obama adviser. “To me it looks like some crazy James Bond movie, but no one has written the third act, so I don’t know how it all ends.”
Speaking of movies, near the end of the hit film “Catch Me If You Can,” there’s a scene that Snowden might do well to watch while he’s killing time in the airport lounge (or wherever he is) pondering his fate. The young forger, Frank Abagnale, who has been staying a step ahead of the feds, finally grows irritated and fatigued. Not because they are particularly skilled in their hunting, nor because they are getting closer, but simply because they won’t give up. In a fit of pique, he blurts into the phone, “Stop chasing me!” On the other end, the dogged, bureaucratic Treasury agent, Carl Hanratty, answers, “I can’t stop. It’s my job.”
Ultimately, this is why many people who have been involved in such matters believe Snowden will be caught. Because no matter how much he may love sticking it to the U.S. government and waving the banner of truth, justice, and freedom of speech, that mission will prove largely unsustainable without serious fundraisers, organizers and dedicated allies working on his behalf for a long time.
They’ll have to make Edward Snowden their living, because those who are chasing him already have. Government agents will be paid every minute of every day for as long as it takes. Seasons may change and years may pass, but the odds say that one morning, he’ll look out of a window, go for a walk or stop for a cup of coffee, and the trap will spring shut. It will be almost like a movie.