Edward Snowden missed the flight to Havana. I didn't.
- By Anna NemtsovaAnna Nemtsova is a Moscow-based correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, covering Russia and the former Soviet states. She is also the winner of the 2012 Persephone Miel Fellowship. Reporting for this piece was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
HAVANA — We’re waiting for you in Havana, Snowden. Are you on your way?
It’s still unclear what happened on Monday, June 24, the day after leaker Edward Snowden arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong. That day, Snowden was supposed to board a plane to Havana to then transfer to Ecuador, one of the very few places willing to shield him from the American officials who regard him as a traitor. He even had a boarding pass for the window seat in row F, in economy class. But he never showed up, and his seat stayed empty.
Was Snowden trapped in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport against his will by the Russian security service, curious to see the data he had in his computers? Or was he afraid of flying in a plane that could be grounded while passing over the United States, where American courts were waiting to lock him up in jail for over 30 years? Until the very moment the Aeroflot crew closed the plane’s door, it looked like he was coming: Russian police surrounded Gate 28, patrolling outside and inside the airplane. The crew members on the plane looked tense and upset, as if they were facing a horrible trial. We still don’t know what happened at the last moment, but in the end Snowden stayed in Moscow.
I was on that plane, waiting for him along with several dozen other journalists from international news agencies and TV channels, all of us eager to quiz him about his claims. I wanted to ask Snowden about the evidence he had to prove his claims that the U.S. and British intelligence agencies, despite their governments’ public advocacy for freedom of the Internet, had been spying and stealing tons of personal data from people in their home countries.
For a long time, after we took off, we still could not believe that Snowden was not among us: After all, who knew what disguise he might be using? (This might seem a bit less crazy when you consider that we just saw an American spy wearing a wig last month.) Trapped on the flight for 12 hours, journalists walked around the plane looking into every passenger’s face. Other reporters were already waiting to greet Snowden in Cuba. They looked for him inside and outside Havana’s airport, asking every young blond male if he was Snowden. I’m still hoping to meet up with Snowden here in Havana, though Ecuadorean diplomats now say it may take months to issue him political asylum.
There’s one very specific reason Snowden may be having trouble finding a way out of the Moscow airport’s transit lounge, where he apparently is right now: his papers. Right now the only travel document he has is one of dubious status issued by the Ecuadoreans. After the American authorities canceled his U.S. passport on Monday, no airline wants to sell him another plane ticket. (He apparently managed to buy his ticket for Havana while his passport was still valid.)
There are other theories. "He got frightened that Americans would bring him down on that plane," says Igor Bunin, a Moscow political analyst. "He’s a huge pain for the Kremlin, a Catch-22. Now that he’s turned into an anti-American government star, Russia can’t kick him out, but keeping him means even a bigger international scandal." I’d love to ask Snowden about his days and nights in Russia if I ever get the chance to meet him.
My friend Olga Bychkova, a host from radio Echo of Moscow, described a scene she witnessed in the airport’s transit zone on the day of Snowden’s arrival on Sunday. "I saw about 20 Russian officials, supposedly FSB [security service] agents in suits, crowding around somebody in a restricted area of the airport," Bychkova told me. "The Kremlin pretends they have nothing to do with him being stuck in Moscow, but in reality they’re all over him."
What’s up Mr. Snowden? Do you really hate reporters? If you’re "a free man," as President Vladimir Putin says, why hide from crowds of journalists waiting to talk to you in Sheremetyevo airport for three days? WikiLeaks claims that you — the biggest leaker in the history of the National Security Agency — are "in a safe place." If you’re safe and free, why didn’t you use your ticket last Monday? You would have had a great chance to explain the reasons for renouncing your wealthy life with a beautiful girlfriend. Just imagine: 12 hours in front of the world’s major networks on the flight to Cuba! Russian commentators think that you’re not as free as the Russian leader claims, that somebody did not allow you to fly Monday. "Snowden will fly out of Russia when the Kremlin decides he can go," says Moscow political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. "He might not even be in the airport. The safest place would be a GRU [Russian military intelligence] apartment." That would also explain why no one has seen your face in Moscow yet.