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For Edward Snowden, A Convoluted Path To Possible Asylum


Russia's decision to allow Edward Snowden into the country was just one more step in what appears to be a convoluted path to possible asylum. As we've just heard, Snowden is not on the flight to Cuba he was scheduled to take from Moscow. But more on the latest we are looking at, we are joined in the studio by NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: OK. Do we know where Snowden is at this minute?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, we think he's still in Moscow in the transit lounge at the airport and we think he's trying to work out the final details on a possible asylum deal with the government of Ecuador. You know, the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, had a press conference this morning in London and he said that WikiLeaks helped Snowden get papers that allowed him to travel and that would allow him to maybe seek asylum in a number of different countries.

The U.S. has annulled his passport, so there's some confusion about whether the Hong Kong government knew that before they allowed Snowden to leave over the weekend. The Ecuadorian foreign minister's tweeted that Snowden has made an application for asylum. And you recall, as we said earlier, that Assange has been in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for a little over a year because he's wanted too. He's fighting extradition on sex-related charges in Sweden. So, this whole Ecuadorian connection to Snowden clearly isn't a coincidence.

MONTAGNE: Well, it doesn't seem that it's a coincidence either, that WikiLeaks got involved, but precisely how did they?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, apparently Snowden contacted them last week asking for help. And it was WikiLeaks that apparently arranged for this special refuge travel document that he has. Ecuador apparently issued that last week sometime. And all Snowden needs legally to get out of Moscow is for a receiving government to recognize his traveling papers. So the fact that his passport has been annulled isn't quite a big a deal as it sounds like.

MONTAGNE: The U.S. is accusing Snowden of espionage and stealing government property, among other things. He is, as we've been saying, he's a fugitive, he's considered a fugitive. So, take us back a little moment and tell us how he was able to leave Hong Kong.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, this is one of the curious things about all of this. The U.S. thought it had an understanding with the Hong Kong government and that it wouldn't let Snowden travel while all this back and forth was going on. And they've been talking for about a week. I mean, the attorney general actually called his counterpart in Hong Kong, and then all of a sudden Hong Kong told the Obama administration on Friday night that the documentation for Snowden's arrest was insufficient, and then less than 48 hours later, Snowden is on an Aeroflot flight to Moscow.

So, there was clearly a political calculus on the part of Hong Kong. Since 1997, Hong Kong's been a semi-autonomous region to China. But when it comes to foreign policy, Beijing really makes the decisions for Hong Kong. And intelligence officials I talked to said they wouldn't be surprised if China mirrored Snowden's hard drives on these computers he has; did that remotely while he was in Hong Kong, got what they wanted, and then didn't want to get in the middle of a messy diplomatic situation, so they let Snowden go. And China has deniability by saying Hong Kong made the decision.

MONTAGNE: Well, of course, it's also a small part of this that Snowden, Edward Snowden became quite popular in China these last couple of weeks.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He became a hero because he basically revealed documents that showed that it wasn't just China that was hacking into U.S. cybersystems. The U.S. was doing that to China, as well.

MONTAGNE: So, now what?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, there aren't a lot of good options. If Snowden gets on a plane to Cuba or wherever, if it goes through allied airspace, another country could ask it to land. If he gets to his destination - let's say it's Ecuador - the U.S. could ask for extradition. But the extradition treaty the U.S. has with Ecuador has something called the political offense exception. That means they can deny extradition if the subject is being prosecuted for political reasons. And here's the problem: there's no definition of what constitutes a political offense under international law.

MONTAGNE: So, it would seem that Ecuador is at least - if indeed that is the definition - is at least a reasonable destination for him to head for.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, that's what we hear, although on a press called this morning, Assange mentioned that he was helping Snowden seek asylum in Ecuador, among other countries. So, there's lot of bait and switch going on here. So, we're not quite sure.

MONTAGNE: OK, thanks very much, Dina.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston.


MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.