The hunt for fugitive Edward Snowden, wanted on espionage charges, has all the elements of a John le Carre spy novel.
As of Tuesday, Snowden has given U.S. authorities the slip in an international cat-and-mouse chase from the U.S. to Hong Kong to Moscow, with well-laid plans to fly on to South America (by way of Havana), where he is hoping to be given asylum by Ecuador, the country that is harboring WikiLeaks fugitive Julian Assange in its London embassy.
It is a twisted tale in a sea of ironies and hypocrisies in which Snowden sees himself as the lone champion of civil liberties and freedom of speech as he nonetheless seeks protection among some of the world's worst despots and anti-free speech governments, including Communist China and Russia, where you are sent to prison or forced labor camps for daring to criticize the government or its leaders.
In Ecuador, which Snowden hopes will be his ultimate destination and safe harbor from U.S. prosecution, he will be embraced by President Rafael Correa, a vehement and hateful enemy of the U.S. Since his election in 2007, he's launched a war on freedom of the press, imposing a strict new media law aimed at muzzling his critics, dragging them into court with libel suits, and launching a vindictive crusade to weaken media outlets.
Secretary of State John Kerry said it was "no small irony" that Snowden was seeking protection from countries like Russia and China that place strict government limits on Internet access and human rights.
But Snowden's deceptive narrative about what motivated him to steal and expose our most secret defenses against terrorist attacks was as phony as a $3 bill. In interviews,he said he had gradually come to the conclusion that the U.S. international surveillance programs he worked on were a threat to Americans' freedoms and right to privacy.
In fact, in a June 12 interview with the South China Morning Post published Monday, Snowden said that from the very beginning, he sought the subcontractor job with Booz Allen in order to obtain evidence about its surveillance methods.
"My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked. That is why I accepted that position about three months ago," he told the Post.
And what about this administration's feeble efforts to capture Snowden and bring him to justice?
Attorney General Eric Holder made repeated phone calls to his counterpart in Hong Kong, as did other Justice Department attorneys and FBI officials, urging them to detain Snowden, only to be left twisting slowly in the wind for more than a week by foot-dragging Chinese requests for more information and explanations.
It wasn't until Saturday that senior aides to the President, including national security adviser Tom Donilon, reluctantly got into the act, attempting to pressure Hong Kong to respond.
But it was clear from the beginning that Hong Kong, a semi- autonomous island city that sits within the jaws of China, was taking direct orders from Beijing's leaders who saw Snowden as a thorny problem in relations with the US that they did not want.
A shadowy envoy was sent from the mainland to Hong Kong to tell Snowden to leave the country. He was soon on a Russian Aeroflot flight for Moscow with the help of WikiLeak agents, hoping to catch a flight to Havana and from there to Quito and into Correa's welcoming arms.
But something happened at a transit area in Moscow's airport that delayed plans to fly to Havana, raising suspicions that President Vladimir Putin took advantage of the opportunity to insert himself into the story and make the Obama administration squirm.
There was something pathetic about Secretary of State Kerry pleading with Moscow Monday "to do the right thing. We think it's very important in terms of our relationship."
What relationship? Putin opposes us on the civil war in Syria, is Bashar al-Assad's chief weapons supplier, and never misses an opportunity to stick it to us. This week was no exception.
As for Kerry's plea to "follow the rule of law," Putin made it clear Tuesday that Snowden will not be extradited to the United States because Russia has no extradition pact with us. Moreover, he argued, Snowden was in the transit area of the international airport, had not technically crossed the Russian border, and thus was free to travel anywhere he wants.
Clearly Putin -- like Beijing -- was ready and willing to assist Snowden in any way he could to escape to Ecuador without getting embroiled in a messy extradition dispute.
Meantime, it's still not clear how much material China and Russian intelligence authorities obtained from the remaining top-secret documents Snowden is believed to have in his possession.
Putin said Tuesday that Russian intelligence agencies "didn't work and aren't working" with Snowden, but you can't believe anything this former KGB agent says.
The former NSA worker was undoubtedly debriefed by Chinese intelligence about how we had hacked into their computer files during the month he stayed in Hong Kong and by Russian agents during his stopover in Moscow.
And quite likely they have downloaded everything that is stored in Snowden laptop. "That stuff is gone," a former senior U.S. intelligence official who served in Russia told the Washington Post. "I guarantee the Chinese intelligence service got their hands on that right away," he said, adding, "the Russians have that stuff now," too.
But we still do not know how many more unrevealed intelligence documents he still possesses and how much additional damage he can inflict on our national security before he is caught. And he will be caught.
Meantime, we know that terrorist organizations have already changed the way they communicate as a result of his disclosures. And that has significantly raised the risks of future attacks on our homeland.