Policy & Strategy

Obama administration set to make NSA leaker Snowden’s trip tough

Edward Snowden could be in for the longest and most arduous flight of his life if President Obama gets his way.

Venezuela and Bolivia have offered asylum to the 30-year-old National Security Agency leaker charged with espionage, but the U.S. government is certain to ensure getting from the Moscow airport to South America won’t be easy. 

{mosads}Nearly every commercial route from Moscow to South America would involve traveling through the skies of at least one member country of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

And the United States has been fervently lobbying its allies to deny any flight carrying Snowden access to its airspace if he attempts to evade U.S. capture on a passenger airliner.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday that the administration was talking to countries that might serve as potential transit points or final destinations for Snowden, in an attempt to convince them not to give him sanctuary.

“We’ve made very clear that he has been charged with felonies and, as such, he should not be allowed to proceed in any further international travel, other than travel that would result in him returning to the United States,” said Carney.

There’s only one direct flight per day from Moscow to Cuba, which could be a transit point for Snowden on his way to asylum. But the flight uses the skies above Sweden, Finland and Norway, and typically flies through American airspace as well.

On Monday, for instance, that flight’s path was scheduled to travel above Ohio, West Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia, according to Mark Duell, vice president of operations at the flight-tracking website FlightAware.

Norway is the only NATO member of the Nordic states in the flight’s trajectory, but Sweden and Finland have had healthy decades-long relations with the international group and could be more inclined than not to divert a plane carrying Snowden.

France and Spain did exactly that last weekend, heightening international tensions by allegedly refusing to let Bolivian President Evo Morales’s plane refuel in their countries because of suspicions he was carrying Snowden on board from Moscow.

Morales was forced to refuel in Austria, which is not a NATO member. Snowden was not aboard the flight, but some have speculated that it might have been a dry run to test how a flight carrying the accused felon would fare over NATO-member countries.

Traveling south from Moscow could prove to be another complicated route for Snowden, because the most likely path would be over Ukraine and Turkey. Turkey is a NATO member, and Ukraine has been trying to join NATO for more than five years.

To avoid transferring planes in an unsympathetic country, Snowden could also attempt to take a private plane south from Moscow through Africa, rather than Europe. But that lengthy trip would total more than 8,500 miles, requiring a refueling stop for all but the most long-distance jets.

Snowden could also attempt to fly over the North Pole to skirt Norwegian airspace, but his plane would again most likely run into fueling problems, as a route above Norway and down through Iceland and the United Kingdom would be more than 7,500 miles, said Duell.

Traveling eastward from Moscow also looks dim. It would involve a nearly eight-hour flight across Russia that would touch dangerously close to Chinese and Japanese airspace. There would be no likely sympathetic refueling destination in the Pacific Ocean on the way toward South America.

Under the International Air Transport Association (IATA) treaty, any country could deny a plane carrying Snowden, whether it was from Moscow to another safe haven or from Moscow back to the United States, said Joshua Schank, the head of the nonprofit Eno Center for Transportation. 

“This certainly would qualify as a good reason if someone thought it was in their interest to deny airspace access for Snowden, you could see that being a justifiable cause,” said Schank, a transportation adviser for former Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).

“If somebody wanted to make a political statement about it, they could push the envelope and say that they weren’t going to allow this plane to fly through their airspace.”

There are some reasons to think the Obama administration won’t go to every length possible to stop Snowden, who has already traveled from Hong Kong to Moscow but has since had his passport revoked. 

Doing so could open problematic doors for America that it would prefer closed, according to Jonathan Turley, a law professor at The George Washington University.  

“If countries bar international flights because of single passengers, one can imagine a host of these demands coming from [other] countries, whether it’s the Dalai Lama or some political dissident,” he said. “The U.S. is giving legitimacy to that type of complaint.”

Snowden’s best hope, said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, is to travel under the wing of a high-level head of state, such as the Russian president.

“If Vladimir Putin was holding Snowden’s hand on a private jet as he flew to Venezuela — there’s a big difference between the president of Bolivia and the president of Russia,” said Rubin.

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