Edward Snowden, the man who singlehandedly (as far as we know) exposed the United States’ secret Internet monitoring practices, is a clever man. Yesterday, the former Booz Allen Hamilton analyst tricked the media into thinking he was flying to Cuba, sending the world’s press on an unexpected 72-hour snipe hunt to Havana. Shortly afterwards, his supporters at Wikileaks held a gleeful conference featuring Julian Assange.
That last part makes sense since Snowden shares more than a few characteristics with Assange. In comparison to the quiet professionalism of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning’s troubled attempts at self-preservation, Snowden has shown a canny knack for self-preservation, media manipulation, and impromptu geopolitical partnering that parallels Assange’s. From Hong Kong to Russia and to (reportedly) Venezuela and maybe Ecuador on the quest for asylum in Iceland, Snowden has been conducting an impromptu tour of the world as he decides where to end up. The question, however, is what happens from here.
In a word: unlikely. Despite fevered talk in the Twittersphere about Snowden being renditioned to Guantanamo Bay or being taken out by a drone, it’s extremely doubtful either of those things would happen.
Snowden is in the enviable position of being one of the world’s best-known men right now. While killing him would be convenient for the U.S. government, he’s turned himself (with the help of the press and social media) into a public figure with considerable support at home and abroad. Any harm that befalls him now would cause an international scandal for the already embattled Obama administration.
Slightly more likely. Russian President Vladimir Putin is both Obama’s most powerful frenemy and the leader of one of the few countries worldwide that can defy Washington. Snowden, who allegedly arrived on Russian soil this weekend (a Russian official denied he was there), is also a massive intelligence asset to Moscow and offers some PR value to boot. Russian intelligence surely interrogated him when he landed in-country, and no one knows the full extent of the information he gave Chinese authorities. In his old life, Edward Snowden may have been an IT geek for the American intelligence apparatus, but his continuing travels prove he knows a thing or two about digital spycraft.
The real question is if Russia wants Snowden to leave. China was eager for Snowden to leave Hong Kong because his presence was causing thorny diplomatic issues for Beijing; Russia has their own set of priorities and may be happy to keep Snowden around longer as an easy way to antagonize Washington.
While Putin might be an old Cold Warrior who loves to poke Washington in the eye, Russia is still an American ally. In the interests of good relations with the United States and Europe, Moscow might arrange for Snowden to make his way into American custody or boot him out of the country to make a statement.
If Snowden loses his Moscow crash pad, it’s likely that he will go to one of three destinations in the Americas. His original stated plan was to fly to Cuba en route to asylum in Venezuela or Ecuador. The Cuban government, of course, has a vested interest in having Snowden stay out of Washington’s custody–but for Snowden, a dedicated lover of the Internet, Cuba’s omnipresent state censorship and Web controls might be too strict.
Living in Venezuela is a possibility for Snowden, as is Ecuador. Both countries have strained relations with the United States, and Ecuador has already gained international attention by hosting Julian Assange inside its embassy in London. As The Guardian has correctly noted, Snowden’s preservation instincts appear to be overriding his sympathies towards personal liberty and freedom of speech: He’ll go wherever he can stay out of Washington’s reach.
Asylum in Iceland, which Edward Snowden extolled just two weeks ago, looks more and more unlikely each day. Despite the lack of domestic opposition to Snowden taking asylum in Iceland and the existence of a private jet waiting to take Snowden there, Iceland is a small country. In order to receive asylum in Iceland, it is exceedingly likely Snowden would have to transit through intermediary countries that would take him into custody. Even if the asylum-giving private jet is a real option, Iceland also doesn’t have the geopolitical juice to resist Washington. In the end, the small and financially struggling island nation has little leverage.
Bush II-era defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously spoke of “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns.” Edward Snowden’s case is full of unknown unknowns. We still don’t know which news publications or allies Snowden gave copies of his laptop hard drives to, we don’t know what information he hasn’t disclosed, we don’t know how much information he has given to foreign governments, and we certainly don’t know what his long-term game plan is.
This also applies to Snowden’s long-term future as well. With major geopolitical forces at work, Snowden is at risk of becoming a pawn in a much larger game that has little to do with exposing intelligence agencies’ wrongdoings. There is always the risk that Snowden may become an inconvenient guest for any newfound hosts, and he needs to make contingency plans accordingly. One thing’s for sure: This story will continue to twist and turn in the coming days and while he may be out of sight at the moment, we haven’t seen the last of Edward Snowden.
[Treasure Map: Lobke Peers via Shutterstock]