The Snowden Guide: How to Hide Out From America

Snowden speaking at an interview in Hong Kong Photograph by The Guardian via Getty Images

If U.S. officials get their way, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s world tour will come to an abrupt end inside Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. The globe-trotting leaker, sought on federal charges after disclosing to media organizations top-secret details of U.S. surveillance programs, was allowed by the Chinese government to board a flight out of Hong Kong on Sunday. But his arrival in Moscow didn’t go quite as expected. The former NSA contractor missed an Aeroflot flight he had booked to Havana—possibly because the Russians detained him for questioning—and now his precise whereabouts are unknown.

Let’s say you’re the world’s most famous unauthorized source of highly sensitive information about the world’s most powerful government. Where do you stand the best odds of eluding Uncle Sam’s dragnet?

Probably a good idea to get out of Russia. The big question now is whether the Russians will hand over Snowden. Washington has become closer with Moscow ever since a Chechen national bombed the Boston marathon. After the attacks, Russian President Vladmir Putin’s spokesman told reporters that law-enforcement cooperation between the two countries had reached new levels. On the plus side for Snowden, Russia has no extradition treaty with the U.S. and a history of harboring American fugitives during the Cold War, such as spy suspect and former CIA agent Edward Lee Howard. Russian authorities also told the Washington Post that as long as Snowden is in a secure transit zone in the airport, he’s not technically on Russian soil—and so they don’t have the authority to detain him. But Russia hasn’t harbored U.S fugitives in decades: Since 2002, in fact, Russia has extradited three fugitives to the U.S., according to the U.S. Marshall’s Service (via an extraditions map put together by Slate).

Cuba is a different story. If Russia lets Snowden rebook his flight to Havana, the Cubans would be unlikely to extradite him. Cuba is currently harboring two dozen members of a Basque terrorist group that are wanted in the U.S., according to the Miami Herald.

Is Julian Assange’s couch available? With Cuba’s permission, Snowden could travel onward to Ecuador, where he has requested asylum. Although Ecuador signed an extradition treaty with the U.S. in the 1970s, there are loopholes. Last year Ecuador gave asylum to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who is housed in the country’s embassy in London. While Ecuador hasn’t yet signed off on Snowden’s asylum application, the country has already supplied Snowden with temporary refugee papers that allowed him to buy his Cuba ticket after his U.S. passport was revoked on Saturday.

Play the victim card (and pack a hat). If Snowden doesn’t get asylum from Ecuador, where will he go and how will he get there? According the Guardian, Wikileaks has approached Iceland on Snowden’s behalf. Iceland has a longstanding extradition treaty with the U.S., but the country has applied its own standards of justice in deciding who can be extradited. In order to get asylum in Iceland, Snowden would have to persuade Icelandic courts that he’s become a victim of persecution by the U.S. government.

Don’t go here. Or here. Snowden should not try to seek refuge in Canada, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, or most Caribbean countries. Besides Cuba and Ecuador, these countries send hundreds of fugitives back to the U.S. for prosecution each year. Mexico is especially helpful: Specially trained squads chase down criminals wanted by the U.S; according to the U.S. Marshals Service, most of these fugitives are wanted for drug trafficking.

The safest havens are not the freest. Snowden could try Iran, North Korea, or Syria, but then he’d be allying himself with hostile regimes that don’t afford their people the basic human rights and the free speech protections he says he stands for.

Get a good travel agent. His best bet might be Africa, where just a handful of countries have signed legal agreements with the U.S. to extradite fugitives. Since 2002, only 18 people have been extradited to the U.S. from the entire continent. But Snowden would have to get to Africa, and that would be tough, given that there a few direct flights from Moscow. The cities that have direct flights—Lagos, Nigeria; Johannesburg; and Nairobi, Kenya—all have extradition treaties with the U.S. And airlines that fly directly to Africa, including Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines, and Ethiopian Airlines, may not want to embroil themselves in the situation.

If Snowden makes it out of Moscow, there appears to be only one certainty: The route to his final destination will be long and circuitous.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.