The absurdities of the Where’s-Edward-Snowden guessing game have by now reached such heights that it would be no great surprise to see reports of the NSA leaker popping up in Tehran, or perhaps transiting the Pyongyang airport. Yes, I’m making that up. But a lot of the recent reports read like scenes from some latter-day version of Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 satire of the news trade, Scoop. Traveling on what is presumably a revoked U.S. passport, Snowden departs Hong Kong for Moscow. Speaking from Finland, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin says that Snowden arrived unexpectedly in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport and is still hanging around the transit hall — though journalists hunting high and low in the transit area can’t find him. Maybe he’s enroute to Ecuador? Or points between? On a tip that he was booked aboard an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Cuba, some two dozen journalists board the plane — only to discover as it heads for Havana that he’s not there.
And with the U.S. demanding his return, and not getting it, the diplomatic fictions multiply. Speaking from Delhi, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says that if China had adequate notice and willfully let Snowden go, “It would be deeply troubling.” Would be? It seems that it’s a done deal. Or is it? Forgive me, I’m not going to go through every report of Snowden’s doings since he left U.S. jurisdiction. But if anyone cares to do so, one place to begin would be to look for the last time anyone with no stake in this game last reported laying eyes on Edward Snowden. And where. As it is, three governments with some of the most powerful surveillance machineries on the planet seem unable to sort out precisely where he is, when he left, or where he’s going.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s take at face value the basic tale as implied by the official statements to date. From Hong Kong, traveling on a revoked U.S. passport, Snowden boards a plane enroute to Moscow, whence he is transiting to some unknown onward destination. The Russian authorities let him disembark, and watch helplessly as he waits out the layover for some undetermined onward flight.
On the most banal red-tape level, none of that makes sense. It’s not just that to effect a smooth departure from Hong Kong, or anyplace else overseen by China, you must present your (valid) passport. To board a plane to Russia, standard practice for a U.S. citizen is that you must either have a visa, or a connecting flight back out of Russia already booked. To get a visa requires first and foremost a valid passport, as well as an invitation from a host person or organization in Russia. To merely transit Sheremetyevo without a Russian visa requires a complete onward booking. In which case, one might suppose that the various governments involved, with all their staggering surveillance powers, might have some clue about Snowden’s itinerary.
Instead, we have an American fugitive, traveling on a revoked passport, who is apparently waved though emigration with no problem in Hong Kong, boards a plane to Russia with no visa and no confirmed onward flight, and then vanishes in the Sheremetyevo transit hall. Forget about finding Snowden. The real talent here lies elsewhere. I’d like to meet his travel agent.