Snowden Saga Causes Diplomatic Standoff

Originally published on July 3, 2013 4:38 pm

The plane carrying Bolivia’s president Evo Morales was diverted to Austria over suspicions that Edward Snowden — the former NSA agent who leaked sensitive documents to the press — was on board.

The BBC reports that France and Portugal refused to allow the flight to cross into their airspace.

President Morales was flying back from meeting Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow, where Snowden is currently living in an airport transit space as a stateless person.

The Guardian reports Snowden has applied to 21 countries — including Bolivia — for asylum from the United States.


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It's Here and Now. Bolivian President Evo Morales is fuming today after France and Portugal refused to let his plane cross into their airspace. There were suspicions that NSA leaker Edward Snowden might be onboard. President Morales' plane was rerouted to Austria, where it had to refuel. This is the air traffic control audio.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible), do you need any assistance in landing?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Not at this moment. We need to land because we are not - we cannot get a correct indication of the fuel indication. So as a precaution we need to land.

HOBSON: Now as far as anyone knows, Edward Snowden is still somewhere in the Moscow Airport as the list of countries denying him asylum continues to grow. We're going to talk about the diplomatic implications of offering Snowden asylum in a moment, but first we are joined by ABC News correspondent Kirit Radia, who has spent a lot of time in the Moscow Airport.

And Kirit, first of all what happened yesterday? Why did people think that Edward Snowden was onboard the Bolivian president's plane?

KIRIT RADIA: Well that's actually the question everybody's trying to figure out today. It apparently stemmed from some apparently unfounded rumors that he was onboard that plane. But the source of them is a bit of a mystery. The president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, was on the television channel of Russia today, earlier in the day, and he did say that he would consider giving Edward Snowden asylum in Bolivia.

But at no point did he ever say that he was going to take him with him. In fact, the rumors were more to the effect that Snowden might have caught with Venezuela's president, who was also in Moscow yesterday. But of course he, when asked about that, sort of demurred and said that he probably wouldn't be considering that.

So it's a bit of a mystery why everybody thought that he was on the Bolivian president's plane.

HOBSON: Well, you spent some time at the airport, where he is supposed to be right now. Do we have any idea where he is in the airport?

RADIA: Well, I can tell you I spent more time than I probably would have liked to looking for Snowden last week at that airport. I've spent up to 18 hours a day looking for him. But there's no sign of him anywhere in any public part of the airport. He's said to be behind passport control in what's called the transit zone of the airport, that's where you board your flights, and yet nobody has seen him anywhere.

There is a small hotel there, but I and other journalists who are staked out in front of that hotel 24/7 - and saw no signs of him inside. There was nobody, for example, bringing food inside to suggest anybody was holed up in there. He's certainly not in the duty-free looking for some bargains on alcohol and perfume.


RADIA: And he's not in the cafes anywhere because we've checked there, as well. There is one possible area that he could be in, the Novotel Hotel that's just off the airport grounds and has been dubbed the prison hotel by some reviewers on Trip Advisor. It's a place where people with no visa, just like Snowden, with long layovers can book a room for the night.

But it's called the prison hotel because police escort you from the plane to the hotel room, and you are basically locked in there. You can't legally leave your room. You can walk in the hallway a bit, but that's it, until it's time for your flight, then they take you back. So that could be one place he could hiding away from the prying eyes of the press in some amounts of comfort.

HOBSON: Kirit Radia, ABC News Moscow correspondent, thank you so much.

RADIA: Thank you.

HOBSON: And now let's turn to Peter Galbraith, who's a former ambassador to Croatia, and Ambassador Galbraith, what do you make of this diplomatic mess that has ensued? I see that the Bolivians have filed a complaint with the United Nations about what happened over the skies of Europe. What's going on here?

PETER GALBRAITH: The first point would suggest how difficult it is going to be for Mr. Snowden to get out of Moscow. While nobody has owned up to closing their airspace to the Bolivian president's plane, the fact is the airspace was closed, and the plane was forced to land and apparently searched in Vienna. And I think that is the risk he would face if he got on anybody else's plane. So I think he's likely to be in Moscow for a long period of time.

HOBSON: But obviously these European countries that forced this plane to land or said don't come over our airspace have a lot on the line here. Can you just give a sense of what's at stake for them?

GALBRAITH: There's no advantage to them to helping Snowden, but there would be an advantage to helping the United States. this is an easy one to be helping the United States, and I think that's in the calculation of a number of these countries, including Russia, where Putin has said we don't want Snowden to be continuing his anti-American activity.

HOBSON: Although he's not going into the airport and kicking him out.

GALBRAITH: No, he's not doing that. He says, I haven't investigated this myself, that Russia does not practice extradition, although I suppose they could simply expel Snowden, and he'd probably bounce around and ultimately could end up back in the United States. Certainly it's looking very difficult for Snowden to find a comfortable place of exile.

HOBSON: What about these countries that have been very openly sympathetic to Snowden, like Venezuela? Why wouldn't they help him out? I mean, obviously it seemed like a possibility that the new president there, Nicolás Maduro, could have just put Snowden on his plane.

GALBRAITH: Yes, but again, even looking at it from the calculation of Ecuador or Bolivia or Venezuela, they have a lot in their relations with the United States. Ecuador is engaged in a campaign now on the trade agreement. If it was something important to Ecuador, they might well want to take a stand. But taking Snowden is - the only reason you would do that is that you wanted to put a stick into the eye of the United States, and that could be costly.

So I think that is the calculation for Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. And frankly in the case of Ecuador, it's an entirely different calculation than the one in which they allowed Julian Assange to come into their embassy. That wasn't an act against the United States. It caused some trouble with Britain, but the fallout was very limited. I think they understand the fallout from taking Snowden would be much more serious.

HOBSON: Now what about the notoriously neutral Switzerland, which I guess has said we would take somebody if their life is in danger, and that's not the case here, but they have to be in Switzerland to apply for asylum. What is the calculation for a country like Switzerland?

GALBRAITH: Snowden's chances might be best in what I would call a rule of law country. In the case of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, maybe even Russia, it basically would be a political calculation to take him. But there are countries like Switzerland, which consider asylum requests strictly on the basis of the law and of the risk that the - whether the individual would have committed a crime in Switzerland.

You know, quite often you do not extradite for an offense that is not a crime in your own country, and what the consequences the individual might face in the United States. Certainly if he ended up in a European country, none of them would extradite him unless they had an assurance that Snowden wouldn't face the death penalty, and since there's talk about both the Espionage Act and treason, that is out as a possibility.

HOBSON: Now ambassador, he has been in the airport since June 23. How do you see this playing out?

GALBRAITH: Well, there was a case of an Iranian who was in the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris for months or maybe years. So I think Snowden could end up being at the Moscow Airport for a very long period of time, just like Julian Assange has undoubtedly spent more time in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in a small room than he would if he had gone to Sweden and faced the criminal charges there.

HOBSON: Ambassador Peter Galbraith, speaking to us about some of the thorny diplomatic issues involved in the Edward Snowden case. Ambassador, thanks so much.

GALBRAITH: Well, thank you.


HOBSON: And still ahead today, there was a big decision yesterday by the Obama administration to delay the implementation of a key part of the health care law. We're going to talk with NPR's health policy correspondent Julie Rovner about what that means for businesses, for people and of course for politics.


Right, this would push back the requirement that some businesses have to provide health coverage for workers. We have a conversation going on Facebook. Shelly Kater(ph) says: What a joke, fat cats are laughing all the way to the bank. But Cheryl Crandall(ph) says we do have to wait until it works, although this is a disappointment. So we want your thoughts, as well, Latest news is next, Here and Now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.