How to Make It as an Asylum Seeker

Five rules for NSA leaker Edward Snowden to make sure that life on the run goes as smoothly as possible.

The Guardian via Getty Images
The Guardian via Getty Images

As he journeys west from Hong Kong toward asylum in Ecuador, Cuba, or possibly Venezuela, NSA leaker Edward Snowden should keep in mind that dodging American justice isn’t just a matter of hopping a few flights through sympathetic countries. It’s an extremely long game. Once the initial public-relations buzz wears off, regimes can tire of harboring high-profile fugitives who end up causing more trouble than they’re worth. If Snowden wishes to reach a ripe old age in Quito or Guayaquil, he might want to take some cues about staying one step ahead of the law from the fugitives of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Here are five rules from that chaotic era, when terrorists, radicals, and slightly bonkers hijackers regularly hopped across borders in search of asylum.

1. Clearly define your political motive. Extradition treaties typically include exceptions for crimes of a "political character." In theory, these clauses are meant to protect political dissidents from being sent back home to face prosecution for acts such as organizing protests or penning anti-government tracts. But governments have wide latitude to define these crimes as they see fit: In 1974, for example, the French declined to arrest the four Basque assassins of Spanish prime minister Luis Carrero Blanco, stating that extradition would be an impossibility because the crime was "so obviously political."

Snowden didn’t do anything that extreme, of course, but the U.S. government will obviously contend that his actions were more criminal than political and therefore worthy of extradition. In his interview with The Guardian earlier this month, Snowden did a good job of heading off that line of argument by emphasizing his dedication to the public interest. His proxies should now reiterate that sentiment as much as possible, so that no future Ecuadorian president is ever tempted to see things from the American point of view.

2. Stay quiet. Snowden has already discussed his motivation for leaking the details of the NSA spy programs, but from now on he should leave that campaign to his surrogates. History has shown that big-mouthed fugitives run the risk of rubbing their hosts the wrong way. The classic example from the Vietnam Era was Eldridge Cleaver, the minister of information of the Black Panther Party. On the run from an attempted-murder charge in California in 1968, Cleaver escaped to Cuba, where he was initially welcomed with open arms by Fidel Castro’s regime. But Cleaver ruined things fairly quickly by speaking candidly to reporters, particularly about the harsh treatment being accorded several imprisoned American hijackers. The irate Cubans forced Cleaver to move to Algeria, where the Soul on Ice author eventually wore out his welcome by publicly calling for dictatorial president Houari Boumedienne to give him the $1 million brought over by a group of American hijackers. Boumedienne had Cleaver’s headquarters raided in revenge.

Snowden doesn’t appear to be quite the loose cannon that Cleaver was, but he should still be aware that his odds of accidentally upsetting his hosts greatly increase every time he opens his mouth on the record.

3. Find allies on the ground. Though his Algerian sojourn ended in disaster, Cleaver actually lasted over three years in the North African country — a pretty impressive run, given his penchant for ruining things with his self-described "fat mouth." One of the keys to his success was the way he gained the support of other welcome guests in Algiers — notably the North Korean diplomatic corps and representatives of the Vietcong, the latter of whom gave him a villa they owned in the tony El Biar neighborhood. These allies helped Cleaver liaise with the Algerian authorities. (Cleaver returned the favor to both: He broadcast virulently anti-American messages to American G.I.’s in Vietnam, urging them to frag their commanding officers, and he wrote the foreword to the English-language translation of Kim il-Sung’s Juche.)

Snowden’s libertarian politics don’t dovetail naturally with the leftism espoused by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa (nor perhaps his government’s assault on free speech), but he still should find some sympathetic souls on Quito’s cocktail-party circuit. He’ll need to tap those contacts in order to handle some very pragmatic issues, like figuring out a long-term housing situation and, more importantly, how to ensure his personal security in a nation with a high crime rate. 

4. Make money. Staying on the lam is always more expensive than one might anticipate, especially when a mammoth entity like the United States of America is doing all it can to shut down your potential sources of income. The root cause of the Black Panthers’ demise in Algeria was poverty — the United States froze Cleavers royalties from Soul on Ice in accordance with the Trading with the Enemy Act, thereby forcing him to look to hijackers for a cash influx. (Washington claimed that Cleaver had forfeited his American citizenship by visiting North Vietnam and North Korea in 1970.) Snowden will have plenty of expenses while in Ecuador, both legal and personal, and the Correa regime probably won’t want to pick up the tab for all eternity. Crowdsourced donations sound like a fine way to keep things going, but the WikiLeaks experience is not encouraging; last year, the organization attracted just $68,000 in handouts, barely enough to keep its servers running. Sure, Snowden could always settle for a run-of-the-mill IT job with some Quito firm to make ends meet. But who can honestly see that happening?

But there are always ways to route money to those in need. Snowden’s wealthiest and most avid supporters should start thinking now about ways they can slip cash into his pockets without attracting the ire of the American government. Bitcoins could sure come in handy here.

5. Do something fulfilling. Boredom and loneliness can be vexing foes, particularly for an intelligent 29-year-old keen to leave his mark on history. Plenty of the folks who hijacked planes to Cuba in the late 1960s and early 1970s can attest to this dilemma: many of the ones who settled down into normal lives in Havana, sometimes complete with spouses and children, eventually decided to return to the United States often because they had tired of their drab proletarian existences.  Can you really picture Snowden being content with a nine-to-five gig in Ecuador? He obviously has a grander future in mind for himself.

Perhaps Snowden should follow the lead of a few notorious American fugitives who found some measure of contentment by transforming themselves into do-gooders. An excellent example of this path are Melvin and Jean McNair, a couple who helped hijack Delta Airlines Flight 841 to Algiers in July 1972; they now operate an orphanage in Caen, France. And the Black Panther Pete O’Neal, another veteran of Algiers who fled a federal gun charge, wound up running a shelter for homeless children in Tanzania.

So what selfless occupation could Snowden take up in order to create meaning in his life? How about teaching free programming classes in a barrio periférico.

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