BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — The world can be a very lonely place for a man without a country — just ask Edward Snowden.
Over the past two days, nation after nation has given the NSA whistleblower the cold shoulder. At the moment, his options seem to be shrinking to just a few: Venezuela, Bolivia, or an indefinite stay in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport.
The United States is arguably little better off. While Snowden remains at liberty, he continues to release embarrassing information about US spying practices that are complicating relations even with Washington’s closest allies.
To date, Snowden has applied to 21 countries for asylum. His requests were forwarded to the appropriate addresses through a Russian consular office at Sheremetyevo.
Yes? No? Maybe?
At least half the countries — including Ecuador, Austria, Spain, Ireland and Switzerland — have taken an easy way out, saying they would not consider asylum requests made outside their borders.
At first it had seemed that Snowden would be welcomed in the country that was sheltering WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that Ecuador’s initial travel pass for Snowden had been “a mistake.”
“Are we responsible for getting him to Ecuador? It’s not logical. The country that has to give him a safe conduct document is Russia,” Correa said.
The tiny South American nation is trying to maintain an independent stance vis-a-vis Washington, but it does have a lot at stake. The United States is Ecuador’s largest trading partner, and the countries’ preferential trade agreement is up for renewal at the end of July.
Quito had unilaterally suspended the agreement, saying it would not be blackmailed by Washington but Correa’s newly cautious stance could indicate a change of heart.
This may have been helped by a friendly phone call from “presidential pit bull” Joe Biden; the vice president appears to have been given the task of bringing potential Snowden-protectors into line, and he called Correa last Friday.
Several countries have not responded to the asylum request. These include Cuba, Iceland, Italy, Nicaragua, and France. Brazil has said it is “not going to respond.”
China, which had seemed to be enjoying Washington’s impotent rage when Snowden was sheltering in Hong Kong, has also adopted a more diplomatic stance, saying it would not comment on any request for asylum.
India, Poland and Germany have given a clear “no” to Snowden, while Russia said it would keep him only if he agreed to “stop his work harming our American partners.”
Snowden defiantly declined, and withdrew his asylum request.
The Latin American holdouts
Only Venezuela and Bolivia have indicated a willingness to accept the fugitive, although it’s unclear how Snowden, whose passport has been revoked by the State Department, would get to either country.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has been an outspoken champion of the young whistleblower, saying that he “deserves the world’s protection” because he was being persecuted by the United States.
“What has he done? Did he launch a missile and kill someone? Did he rig a bomb and kill someone? No. He is preventing war,” Maduro said in Moscow, where he was attending a conference of gas exporting nations.
Venezuela has rarely backed away from a tussle with Washington. It’s the fourth-largest exporter of oil to the United States, and there’s no indication the Obama administration would disrupt advantageous trade relations over what the president called, with evident disdain, “a 29-year-old hacker.”
Bolivia also does not have much to lose. La Paz’s relations with Washington are pretty rocky these days, with Bolivian President Evo Morales, also in Moscow, railing against the US “empire” that spies on developing nations and offering, in Snowden’s case, to “shield the denounced.”
Bolivia has ordered the expulsion of the US Agency for International Development, saying that it is undermining the government; there has not been a US ambassador in La Paz since 2008, when Morales expelled Washington’s envoy and, a month later, the US Drug Enforcement Agency.
Washington and La Paz have clashed on drug policy: Bolivia is the world’s third-largest producer of the coca plant, from which cocaine is produced.
US aid to the country is minimal, having shrunk from a high of $100 million in 2008 to a mere $28 million last year.
The Russian newspaper Izvestia speculated that Snowden might hitch a ride to South America with one of the presidents, but this has not been confirmed.
But everybody’s doing it!
Meanwhile Washington is putting out fires caused by Snowden’s latest revelations, that the United States has been spying on its European Union partners.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the snooping “unacceptable,” while French President Francois Hollande is mobilizing his European colleagues to present a “united front” on the issue.
Almost as bad as the revelations has been the administration’s response. President Barack Obama told reporters in Tanzania that there was nothing wrong with a little snooping between friends, and, besides, everyone is doing it.
“[The intelligence agencies] are seeking additional insight beyond what’s available through open sources,” the president said. “And I guarantee you that in European capitals, there are people who are interested in, if not what I had for breakfast, at least what my talking points might be should I end up meeting with their leaders. That’s how intelligence services operate.”
Secretary of State John Kerry echoed his boss, saying that it was “not unusual” for countries to spy on each other.
“Every country in the world that is engaged in international affairs of national security undertakes lots of activities to protect its national security, and all kinds of information contributes to that,” he said at a press conference in Brunei on Sunday.
One of the most chilling responses to the information came from former head of the CIA Michael Hayden, speaking on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday.
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which protects the privacy of American citizens, “is not an international treaty,” he said, giving Washington carte blanche to invade the privacy of just about any foreign country.
Washington is looking increasingly isolated amidst all the fuss.
If Snowden were somehow to turn up on the doorstep of one the countries to which he has applied, he has a good chance of being able to stay there.
While the United States has extradition treaties with just about every country on Snowden’s list except Russia, many reserve the right to refuse extradition for “political offenses.”
Few nations will send a fugitive back to a country where he might face the death penalty. Snowden has been charged under the Espionage Act, which at least theoretically is a capital crime. However, according to legal scholar Stephen Vladeck, this may be more of a red herring than a real problem.
Capital punishment is possible “only where the government alleges and then proves that the underlying espionage, the underlying conduct, directly led to someone’s death” Vladeck told the Council on Foreign Relations.
It is “impossible to handicap” whether Snowden would be extradited, since extradition “is more a function of diplomatic relations than a purely legal matter.”
With the way things have been going lately, the Obama administration cannot count on much indulgence from even from its allies.
Snowden is fast running out of options. Unfortunately, so is Washington.
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