Snowden: The Miserable Man Without a Country

Posted: Jul 19, 2013 12:01 AM

Now it's official, but subject to events. Edward Snowden applied for temporary asylum in Russia, and Vladimir Putin wants it to be very temporary. The Russian president might send him Dr. Seuss as a bedtime story. The appropriate tale is "Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!"

"As soon as he's allowed to go somewhere else, I hope he will do that," the Russian president said, from an island in the Gulf of Finland, where he boarded a submersible glass capsule to get a look at an 1869 shipwreck. Snowden could be freed from something like a shipwreck, the transit lounge at the Moscow airport, if temporary asylum is granted, but his exit from Russia may not be as easy as his entrance.

Socialist bureaucracies are lubricated with molasses, and Russian officials can take up to three months to consider an application. A Kremlin spokesman says it's up to the Federal Migration Service to determine whether to accept his application. Some celebrity applicants are more welcome than others. The French movie star Gerard Depardieu got his Russian citizenship within days of his arrival in protest of high taxes in France.

The whistle-blowing fugitive -- or perhaps he's more accurately called a horn-blowing fugitive -- continues to be the Rorschach inkblot test, not the superhero his defenders first suggested he was. In the photograph accompanying the breaking story in the London Guardian, the man without a country, frail and trying to grow a beard, looked more like Clark Kent than Superman. He first spoke of surveillance abuses to wild applause, but when he threatened to reveal counter-terrorism methods from the mountain of stolen data, the public applause began to subside.

Ambivalence and power politics remain at play from those he asks for help. Putin enjoys tweaking Barack Obama and needling Americans for doing what Americans long mocked the Russians for doing, but enough now seems enough. He doesn't want to seriously antagonize President Obama before he entertains him in September.

He has to insist, at least in public, that Snowden stop leaking if he wants Russia's help. He knows the celebrated leaker is not likely to stop no matter what he promises. Glenn Greenwald, who broke the Guardian story, says Snowden has "blueprints" of National Security Agency strategies that could cause more damage than anyone "in the history of the United States." That sounds like a stretch, but Snowden has data he thinks guarantees safe passage to a third country.

If all he wants is a conversation, he could have had one without slouching to Latin America, where speech is free only at the whim of power. For a man with an agenda, Snowden has no follow-up plan, and this makes him vulnerable to the unsavory politics and hot air south of the border. President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, the first leader to extend his hand to Snowden, is a charisma-challenged Hugo Chavez wannabe, and he would like an American fugitive to underline his carping at the United States.

Bolivia extended a hand more out of pique with Washington than sympathy for Snowden. President Evo Morales was humiligringoated when his presidential jet, rumored to have Snowden aboard, was forced to land in Austria when no European country would allow him flyover permission. But avenging a humiliation isn't worth jeopardizing the $2.4 billion trade it has with the United States.

Nicaragua, like Venezuela, relishes sniping at the United States for its "imperialism," but enjoys preferences in trade valued at nearly $4 billion. Brazil and Argentina use the Snowden saga for their own anti-American purposes. Latin Americans have always complained about the heavy tread of the gringos. "So far from God, so close to the United States."

The Europeans, perhaps because they can watch the Snowden saga from the sidelines, can afford to be bemused if they're careful about it. French President Francois Hollande, whose popularity is in the pits, enjoyed the cheap diversion of denouncing America's surveillance. German protesters illuminated the American embassy with projected graffiti that read, "United Stasi of America," recalling the iniquitous Cold War security machine in East Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, however, reminded everyone that the United States supplied "significant information" to protect Germany from terrorist attacks.

Snowden insists he doesn't want to live in a surveillance state. But no matter how he eventually leaves Russia, whether by stilts, mail, jet, Bumble Boat, or cow (apologies to Dr. Seuss), he's not likely to get his wish. What he is likely to get is a long and uncomfortable time in an alien place to reflect on his deeds.