Where in the world is Edward Snowden? That seems to be the question that enticed reporters to board a Moscow-to-Havana Aeroflot flight, after word leaked — sorry! — that Snowden had registered as a passenger, perhaps as part of a multi-flight itinerary to Ecuador or Venezuela. Reporters quickly bought tickets for the suddenly popular 12-hour Aeroflot route and dutifully took their seats … only to discover after the doors closed and the plane headed for the runway that Snowden wasn’t on board at all:
A plane took off from Moscow Monday headed for Cuba, but the seat booked by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden was empty, and there was no sign of him elsewhere on board.
An Aeroflot representative who wouldn’t give her name told The Associated Press that Snowden wasn’t on flight SU150 to Havana. AP reporters on the flight couldn’t him.
The Interfax news agency also quoted an unidentified Russian security source in Moscow as saying that Snowden wasn’t on the plane.
The airline said earlier Snowden registered for the flight using his U.S. passport, which American officials say has been annulled. …
After spending a night in Moscow’s airport, the former National Security Agency contractor — and admitted leaker of state secrets — had been expected to fly to Cuba and Venezuela en route to possible asylum in Ecuador.
Twitchy’s been having a lot of fun with the story this morning, calling it “the best Rickroll ever.” According to the New York Times’ Jim Roberts, dozens of reporters are now en route to Fidel Castro’s paradise on the off chance that they might interview the former intelligence contractor. Instead, they fell into the trap of believing the cover story:
— Jim Roberts (@nycjim) June 24, 2013
— Jim Roberts (@nycjim) June 24, 2013
I could understand if a handful of reporters followed up on the potential lead. But dozens? Usually, those involved in intelligence don’t announce their travel intentions, especially those whose home country is pressuring everyone to extradite the fugitive. The Aeroflot ticket should have been taken with a large degree of skepticism, not with a large purchase on the expense account.
The US has already revoked Snowden’s passport, which means he’d have to have another to leave Russia anyway. So far, Russia isn’t offering to grant Snowden a passport, but they’re also not willing to arrest him. In fact, Russia claims that Snowden still hasn’t officially entered Russia at all. The Washington Post suggests, though, that Snowden might still be on the plane:
Despite a direct request from the United States to return Edward Snowden to U.S. soil to face charges of leaking government secrets, Russian officials said Monday that they had no legal authority to detain the fugitive former government contractor, who arrived in Moscow on Sunday and was seeking asylum in Ecuador, reportedly by way of Havana. …
“They’ve just locked the doors of the plane, #Snowden is NOT on this plane!!!” tweeted Egor Piskunov, a reporter with Russia’s government-financed RT. It was still possible, however, that Snowden was on board but out of sight of the journalists, or wearing a disguise.
Vladimir Lukin, Russia’s human rights ombudsman and a former ambassador to the United States, told the Interfax news agency that Russia had no authority to expel Snowden, as Washington was asking it to do. Russian officials said travelers who never leave a secure transit zone inside an airport —which means not crossing passport control–are not officially on Russian soil. Snowden did not have a Russia visa, several officials said, and therefore could not leave the transit zone.
Another complicating factor: the US and Russia don’t have an extradition treaty. We do, however, with Ecuador, Venezuela, and Cuba, although they all date back 80 years or more and probably won’t mean much to the current governments under the circumstances.
Besides, this is mainly a sideshow. The real story is in Washington DC and London, and in whether the US and UK governments can demonstrate that these programs don’t violate the rights of citizens and that the legislatures have effective oversight over their nations’ intelligence agencies. We don’t need red pins on maps with Snowden’s location to have that conversation.