Fugitive U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden has an offer of political asylum from Venezuela - - if only he can get there.
The hard part for Snowden will be finding a route to freedom from Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow, where he arrived on June 23. The U.S. has pressured allies to deny airspace rights for any plane carrying the fugitive, who faces espionage charges for revealing classified American telephone and Internet surveillance initiatives.
“It’s one thing to grant him asylum,” said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Latin America analyst at IHS Global Insight in London. “It’s a very different thing to make that effective.”
Before disclosing the top-secret National Security Agency programs, Snowden fled to Hong Kong, which spurned a U.S. extradition request and let him travel to Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration has urged Snowden to leave as soon as possible, and leaders of Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have indicated they’d be willing to take him in.
President Barack Obama has ruled out trying to intercept Snowden’s plane and force it down. “I’m not going to be scrambling jets” to go after a “hacker,” Obama said at a June 27 news conference in Dakar, Senegal.
The U.S. is openly lobbying other nations not to let the former employee of government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. escape.
“I don’t think there’s any secret that we would like to see him returned,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said during a news conference July 8. “We’ve communicated that publicly and privately to any area where he may be stopping in transit, any area where he could possibly end up.”
Snowden’s most likely commercial route to Latin America would be a regularly scheduled flight on Moscow-based OAO Aeroflot from that city to Havana. Some reporters in Moscow have taken that flight on a so-far mistaken bet he’d be on it.
Cuba would probably let Snowden travel to a Latin American ally that shares its antipathy toward U.S. policy, according to Daniel Sachs, a Central America analyst at Control Risks, which advises investors of security risks.
On the way to Cuba, though, “you’re going to have to go through someone’s airspace,” Sachs said.
The flight from Moscow to Havana cuts across Europe, where U.S. allies already have shown their determination to help catch Snowden.
Bolivia’s President Evo Morales had to make an unplanned landing in Vienna to refuel after departing Moscow last week. Morales said Spain, France, Portugal and Italy all denied his plane permission to fly through their airspace on July 2 amid suspicions that Snowden was on board. He wasn’t.
The alternative to the Aeroflot flight to Havana would be a private jet provided by a Latin American government or a wealthy Snowden supporter. Even then, avoiding a route over U.S. allies wouldn’t be easy.
Allen Thomson, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst, outlined a theoretical route for Foreign Policy magazine: “Fly north to the Barents Sea, thence over to and through the Denmark Strait. Continue south, steering clear of Newfoundland until getting to the east of the Windward Islands. Fly through some convenient gap between islands and continue on to Caracas.”
Thomson pegged the distance of such a trip at 11,000 kilometers, or about 6,800 miles.
A private jet such as a Gulfstream V would probably be able to make the trip without refueling, said John Silcott, executive vice president of Expert Aviation Consulting, which assists attorneys in aviation lawsuits.
WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group that has backed Snowden, had a chartered airplane on stand-by to carry him from Hong Kong to Moscow, although he ended up taking a regular Aeroflot flight. The organization, which is running short of cash, “currently” has no plans to fly Snowden out of Moscow, Olafur Vignir Sigurvinsson, an Iceland-based WikiLeaks representative, said by phone this week.
Venezuela, already courting U.S. retaliation if it takes Snowden in, may not be willing to provide a flight as well, said Moya-Ocampos, the IHS risk analyst who served as chief secretary for that country’s attorney general in 2000.
“Are they willing to have a private jet and arrange some secret route?” he said. “I’m not sure. The U.S. has already warned there will be consequences.”
Chartering a long-range jet aircraft traveling from Moscow to Caracas would cost at least $134,490, according to an estimate on PrivateFly, a jet booking website.
“It’s all about the money,” Silcott said. “If the price is right, I think he could probably find someone or some company to do it.”