Anger at U.S. complicates efforts to capture Snowden

Supporters of NSA leaker Edward Snowden hold a picture of  President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a demonstration outside the Consulate General of the United States in Hong Kong Saturday, June 15, 2013
Supporters of NSA leaker Edward Snowden hold a picture of President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a demonstration outside the Consulate General of the United States in Hong Kong Saturday, June 15, 2013 AP

Edward Snowden, the fugitive American contractor who revealed details of the U.S. government’s extensive spying network, so far has evaded capture by hop-scotching around the world with the help of nations that have their own beefs with the United States.

Lucky for him, there are plenty.

While they don’t share Snowden’s stated cause of government transparency, countries such as China, Russia and Ecuador all have extended him assistance in what analysts say is a rare chance for payback over unwelcome U.S. policies. Snowden’s revelations that U.S. surveillance extended to foreign countries only adds to the willingness of nations to dismiss the Obama administration’s demands for Snowden’s immediate extradition to the United States, analysts said.

“They really see this as an opportunity to poke a finger in the eye of the United States,” said Ronak D. Desai, a specialist on U.S.-Asia relations with the Truman National Security Project, a leadership training institution in Washington. “This gives them the ability to stand up to a giant and say, ‘We don’t have to do what you say.’”

Take the case of Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous Chinese territory that allowed Snowden to leave, reportedly for Russia, rather than hold him as U.S. authorities had demanded. Hong Kong’s official announcement of Snowden’s departure said there was no cause to hold him because U.S. documents “did not fully comply with the legal requirements under Hong Kong law.” But the statement ends with what could be the real reason Hong Kong – and its administrators in Beijing – looked the other way as Snowden fled.

Hong Kong, the statement said, “has formally written to the U.S. government requesting clarification on earlier reports about the hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong by U.S. government agencies.”

Snowden had claimed that U.S. spying extended to the territory – a public relations boon for China after months of hearing U.S. government accusations of cyber attacks and espionage involving U.S. targets. Desai said that Snowden’s shrewdness led to the surprise move of Hong Kong – and, by extension, China – letting him go. Asia observers at first had expected the territory to relent to U.S. demands.

“One thing that he had going for him was that he was able to provide ostensibly substantive proof that the surveillance and cyber attacks go in both directions,” Desai said. “It was a public relations coup because China had been on the defensive for so long.”

The State Department wasn’t buying that Snowden’s flight from Hong Kong was a matter of incomplete paperwork. Spokesman Patrick Ventrell, using unusually forceful terms for a diplomat, repeatedly called it a setback to U.S.-China relations and warned of unspecified “consequences.” Experts on the region said it remains to be seen how much of a chill this episode will cast over the so-called “pivot to Asia” that the Obama administration had hoped to execute after decades of being bogged down in the Middle East.

“This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant, and that decision, as I said, unquestionably has a negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship,” Ventrell told reporters Monday.

Ventrell said that U.S. officials had spent the weekend reminding countries that might offer Snowden safe passage that they were obligated to uphold international standards on diplomatic and law enforcement cooperation. And he hinted that countries wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of the U.S. on the Snowden issue.

“We have broad relationships and we cooperate on interests of mutual concern. And so there’s the ability to cooperate more or less on areas of mutual concerns,” Ventrell said.

Ventrell specifically mentioned Russia, noting that the U.S. had returned “numerous high-level criminals back to Russia at the request of the Russian government,” adding that he hoped Moscow would reciprocate with Snowden.

There’s also no guarantee that Vladimir Putin’s government would comply with demands for Snowden’s expulsion, especially after a particularly fraught year for U.S.-Russian relations. The tensions go deeper than the fact that Moscow and Washington support opposite sides of the bloody civil war in Syria. Other strains include Russia freezing U.S. adoptions of Russian children after fatal abuse cases, Congress approving a law barring several Russian officials from entering the U.S., and Russia revealing the purported CIA station chief after broadcasting on TV the arrest of an American agent who was caught trying to recruit a Russian spy.

“Why should the United States expect restraint and understanding from Russia?” said Alexei Pushkov, head of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of Parliament, according to the Reuters news agency.

The Obama administration could expect a similar response from Ecuador, whose president, Rafael Correa, seeks to boost his anti-American credentials in Latin America as well as be seen as a paladin against secrecy. Ecuador is among the countries considering asylum applications for Snowden.

Carl Meacham, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research institute, said that Correa “is trying to put himself in that ‘we’re the freedom of information folks’” group.

Correa already defied the United States over the case of Julian Assange, founder of the WikiLeaks website, which published hundreds of thousands of once-secret U.S. diplomatic cables in 2011. For more than a year, Assange has been holed up at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London trying to figure out how to get to Ecuador without arrest.

Drawing on that experience, WikiLeaks is also helping Snowden. In a conference call with journalists Monday, Assange confirmed that WikiLeaks was paying Snowden’s expenses and lashed out at the United States for “bullying” countries into handing him over to authorities.

Meacham said that Correa, who was recently re-elected to a third presidential term and is expected to stay in office until 2017, is gambling that another head-on dispute with the United States will not cost him.

“What does he have to lose? He loses the U.S. tariff agreement,” Meacham said, referring to the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act, which is set to expire July 31. Many U.S. legislators oppose renewal of the trade act for Ecuador because of Correa’s anti-U.S. views, and Correa may feel renewal is a lost cause.

The trade act indirectly supports around 400,000 jobs in Ecuador, an Andean nation of 14.5 million people.

“There is good reason for other Latin American countries especially to express solidarity with Ecuador, since so many of them have been subject to U.S. government interference and hostility merely for pursuing alternative paths of economic development, governance and diplomacy than those desired by Washington,” Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning economic think tank, wrote in a statement Monday titled, “Ecuador or Another Country Should Grant Asylum to Snowden.”

Like Assange before him, Snowden has an immediate dilemma – how to travel to Ecuador, Venezuela or any other country that might offer him asylum, particularly after the U.S. revocation of his passport. Snowden is currently traveling with refugee documents issued by Ecuador, WikiLeaks said.

“To my knowledge, there is no right that an asylum seeker has in terms of transit,” said Karen Musalo, a law professor and director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of Law.

“That Julian Assange has been in the Ecuadorean Embassy so long speaks to the fact that it is very hard for someone who is wanted by another government to travel,” Musalo said.

Anywhere en route, Snowden may find a government interested in intercepting his journey. If his plane were to land in Cuba, for example, Cuban authorities would have to weigh their interest in allowing him onward.

In 2006, the State Department said it had received assurances from Cuba that the communist-ruled island would not accept “new” U.S. fugitives, changing its practice dating to the 1960s of allowing Americans on the run – such as Joanne Chesimard, a former Black Panther member who killed a New Jersey state trooper – to seek refuge. Chesimard has lived in Cuba since 1984.

“We shouldn’t be surprised at the offers of refuge. We give refuge for people from Iran and, I believe, Cuba, too,” said Cynthia Schneider, a former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands who’s now a professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington.

Schneider said the United States should remember that the offer of a haven from prosecution can work both ways.

“Yes, he broke our laws,” she said of Snowden, “but I have a friend who’s a cartoonist from Iran now living in Virginia and (the Iranians) think he broke their laws.”

Ali Watkins of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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