Did Austrians Check the Toilet for Edward Snowden?

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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I don't often agree with Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner. But I second her response to the interrupted flight home of her Bolivian counterpart, Evo Morales. "I don't know whether to laugh or cry," she said on Twitter.

Morales says his aircraft was blocked from flying across France and Portugal on his return trip from a natural gas suppliers' conference in Moscow. Spain only allowed him to refuel, after which the plane turned back east and landed in Vienna.

Morales was allowed to take off this morning, after the Austrian authorities said they searched the plane and were satisfied Edward Snowden wasn't on board. According to a Twitter post by Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, who broke the Snowden story, however, the plane wasn't exactly searched -- an airport police officer was allowed to walk through it. You have to hope he checked the toilet.

It isn't at all clear what happened, but the episode seems to have been triggered by the suspicion that Morales had smuggled Snowden onto plane, from the National Security Agency leaker's limbo at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport. At least we think that's where Snowden was (and is?).

Why Vienna? According to an Austrian journalist cited by the Guardian, Morales described the country's President Heinz Fischer as "his brother." Maybe they know each other. Maybe Morales's plane had fuel trouble: Anunverified recording from a hacker of pilot-to-air traffic control conversations suggests the aircraft may have asked to land in Vienna because the fuel gauge was playing up. Or maybe not.

Austria is an important natural-gas industry partner for Russia, but surely not friendly enough to help out by pretending Snowden wasn't on the plane when he was. There will be hell to pay if Snowden pops up today in La Paz.

More likely, the U.S. will have some very embarrassed allies in Europe. Thanks to Snowden's revelations, they are supposed to be mad at the U.S. for spying on them, but now they appear to have done its bidding in trying to capture him.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net