The escape hatches open to Edward Snowden closed one by one Tuesday as many of the countries to which he applied for asylum took themselves out of the running.
Despite Mr. Snowden’s insistence in at least some of his letters seeking asylum that he could face the death penalty if returned to the US, most of the 20 countries he petitioned have said “no” – either outright, or because they said asylum could be considered only for individuals on their soil.
The leaker of US government secrets remains stuck in a kind of diplomatic limbo in the transit section of Moscow’s international airport, where he has been holed up since June 23, when he arrived on a flight from Hong Kong.
With Snowden’s asylum options narrowing, attention is returning to the high-level discussions that Russian and US officials say continue between their two countries. Secretary of State John Kerry said the topic of Snowden came up only briefly in a meeting he had Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Brunei. The Snowden case, he said, is not strictly speaking a matter for either the State Department or Russia’s Foreign Ministry to handle.
Speculation has shifted on a nearly daily basis as to where Snowden – a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who divulged information on secret US spy and information-gathering programs – might end up. After Ecuador it was Russia’s turn Monday – until Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly told Snowden he would have to stop disseminating damaging information about the US if he wanted to remain in Russia.
Snowden promptly scratched Russia from his list.
On Tuesday, all eyes shifted to Venezuela, since Venezuelan President – and sharp US critic – Nicolás Maduro happened to be in Moscow for a meeting of oil-producing countries.
Hopping a ride on Mr. Maduro’s plane back to Caracas would supposedly have allowed Snowden to circumvent restrictions on his freedom of movement following the US revocation of his passport while he was still in Hong Kong.
But even though Venezuela was reportedly on Snowden’s list of countries petitioned for asylum, Maduro said in Moscow Tuesday that his country had received no such request.
Still, Maduro said, Snowden should not be treated like a violent criminal, and he expressed some sympathy for the leaker’s actions.
"What he did was reveal a big truth about how the capitalist elite of the United States tries to control the world, spy on its friends and enemies," Maduro said on the margins of the two-day energy conference. "He never killed anyone or planted any bombs."
But the Venezuelan leader, who succeeded American bête noire Hugo Chávez, brushed off reporters’ questions about the availability of a seat on his plane. “What we will take away with us is multiple deals signed with Russia, particularly in the oil and gas field,” Maduro said.
Snowden also got some words of encouragement from another Latin American leader who has relished jabbing the US – President Evo Morales of Bolivia. "If there were a request, of course we would be willing to debate and consider the idea," Mr. Morales, who was also in Moscow for the conference, told Russia's state-run RT television.
It remains unclear, however, how far even countries that don't mind poking the US will be willing to go to actually help Snowden, who aside from the NSA also worked for the Central Intelligence Agency in the past.
Mr. Putin, himself a former KGB agent, made it clear Monday he had no real love for the former spy’s conversion. Snowden wasn’t welcome in Russia if he insisted on divulging information damaging to “our American partners,” Putin said.
Even Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, whose country issued the temporary travel document that allowed Snowden to leave Hong Kong, appeared to turn his back on Snowden. For days after Snowden arrived in Moscow, it was assumed he would make his way to a friendly Ecuador.
Snowden even sent a letter to President Correa Monday in which he expresses his gratitude to Ecuador for the temporary travel document – and for standing up to the US.
“There are few world leaders who would risk standing for the human rights of an individual against the most powerful government on earth,” Snowden said. “Now ... and through the continued support of your government, I remain free and able to publish information that serves the public interest.”
The letter was obtained by the London-based Press Association news service, presumably from WikiLeaks, which has been providing Snowden with legal assistance.
But Snowden’s flattery was not returned in kind. In an interview published Tuesday in London’s Guardian newspaper, Correa says issuing Snowden a temporary travel document was a “mistake.”
Asked if he would like to meet Snowden, Correa responds, “Not particularly.” Calling the intelligence analyst-turned-leaker a “very complicated person,” the Ecuadorean leader says, “Strictly speaking, Mr. Snowden spied for some time.”