MOSCOW – Russian authorities offered a teasing glimpse of liberation for fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden on Wednesday when they said he could leave the diplomatic no-man’s land of Moscow’s main international airport and live in Russia while he waits to hear about his request for temporary asylum.
No sooner had Russian media reported that the undocumented American would be given papers to cross into Russia than his lawyer said Snowden’s attempt to clear passport control had been thwarted by “bureaucratic difficulties.” The Kremlin-allied attorney, Anatoly Kucherena, said Snowden would have to stay in the airport transit zone for at least another day.
It wasn’t immediately clear if the last-minute complication was of the nitpicking variety that typically causes Russian border guards to reject documents because of creases or smudged print, or a choreographed attempt to delay relief for Snowden and keep him on edge. The delay also bought time for Russian officials to reconsider whether granting Snowden entry while his asylum bid is weighed will damage relations with Washington.
Snowden arrived at Sheremetyevo-2 airport on June 23 on a flight from Hong Kong, reportedly en route to a Latin American country that was considering giving him asylum. But because U.S. authorities had revoked his passport, he was unable to enter Russian territory, nor was he able to buy air tickets to travel elsewhere.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Snowden is welcome to stay in Russia as he seeks to evade U.S. criminal charges of espionage and theft in connection with his absconding with sensitive National Security Agency data files. But Putin has said Snowden must refrain from further disclosures that could roil U.S.-Russian relations.
Kucherena met with Snowden on Wednesday afternoon to pass on the official papers that were supposed to get him through immigration and out of the airport. He told the mob of reporters anxiously awaiting the fugitive’s arrival in Moscow’s open air that new complications had arisen.
“We ran today into some bureaucratic difficulties, but it is not a big deal as everyone understands it is a unique case,” Kucherena said. He declined to go into detail about the problems but said they were “nothing serious to worry about.”
Snowden’s main concern is his security as “he realizes full well that the safest place for him right now is the transit zone,” the lawyer said, alluding to the possibility that Snowden could be snatched from the streets rendition-style and spirited back to the United States under diplomatic cover.