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Snowden facing unfriendly skies; air escape unlikely

By Hannah Allam & Matt Schofield

McClatchy Washington Bureau

LAST UPDATED: 12:23 p.m. HST, Jul 11, 2013

WASHINGTON » Beginning a third week holed up in a Moscow airport’s transit zone, Edward Snowden finds himself far enough away to evade U.S. authorities, but also too far from any of the sympathetic nations willing to shelter him.

Aviation experts say that even if Snowden accepts the tentative offers of Venezuela, Nicaragua or Bolivia to give him shelter, it’s virtually impossible to chart a flight plan to those nations that doesn’t include traveling over or refueling in a U.S.-friendly country that could demand inspection of the plane — and detain him.

Nations have full, exclusive jurisdiction over their airspace, so any plane carrying Snowden could be forced to land if it flies over the territory of a country that’s willing to help American authorities capture the fugitive intelligence contractor. Snowden faces felony charges in the United States for leaking classified documents that detailed the National Security Agency’s extensive surveillance apparatus.

“Nations control their airspace up to the heavens, the old saying goes,” said John Q. Mulligan, an aviation law expert at DePaul University’s College of Law. “Just look at the map. It’s probably possible to figure out a route that wouldn’t touch the airspace of the United States or any friendly nations, but it wouldn’t be easy.”

Snowden’s best hope for breaking out of the transit area most likely hinges on whether he could sneak onto one of five weekly, direct flights to Havana. One such flight landed Tuesday evening, another leaves this afternoon. The main drawback? The path takes the plane directly over the United States, which could flout a standing treaty and force a regularly scheduled commercial flight to land.

There are airplanes that can make the 6,000-mile direct flight from Moscow to Havana or Caracas with fuel to spare. The Airbus A340 has a range of about 9,000 miles and a Boeing 777 can fly for 9,400 miles before refueling. But a direct flight would mean passing through the airspace of European nations and possibly the United States. And chartering such a craft would be incredibly expensive — $100,000 to start, and that’s if a charter service could be found willing to risk angering the United States and perhaps being accused of aiding a fugitive.

“I don’t know what sort of plane they’d have available to make that flight, especially without refueling,” Mulligan said. “A refueling stop would probably be problematic for Snowden.”

While President Barack Obama has said he wouldn’t be “scrambling jets” to haul in Snowden, the U.S. government has shown that it can pressure countries that would serve as pit stops for Snowden on his way to Latin America or other potential exile destinations. Snowden has petitioned more than 25 countries for asylum; the State Department has promised “grave difficulties” for bilateral relations with any nation that aids his escape.

Last week’s diversion of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ presidential jet as he attempted to return to Bolivia from Moscow was a cautionary tale for Snowden as he mulls exit strategies from transit-lounge limbo. France, Spain, Italy and Portugal denied Morales’ requests to overfly their airspace on the way to a refueling stop in the Canary Islands.

The president’s plane was rerouted to Austria and spent 14 hours there, touching off a diplomatic firestorm that may have made some Latin American nations even more willing to play host to Snowden, but also showed the limitations of their ability to help him.

On Tuesday, Bolivia — backed by Nicaragua, Ecuador and Venezuela — called the move against Morales’ plane an “act of aggression” and called on the Organization of American States to approve a declaration demanding that such an incident never be repeated. But while officials in Italy, Spain and France have backed away from embracing what took place — France called it a “technical” error, and Italy and Spain have denied they barred Morales’ jet — the lesson is clear.

“I would think it’s very instructive and worrisome for Snowden,” said a U.S. aviation expert, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the high political sensitivities surrounding the case. “Those states were on absolutely firm legal ground to deny (Morales) use of their airspace. Politically? That’s a judgment call.”

The aviation expert said flights fall into two main categories. The first is civil, such as most commercial and charter airlines, as well as postal services such as FedEx. The other category is state flights, which would cover military, police and aircraft such as Morales’ or President Obama’s Air Force One that are used by governments.

Going the state flight option would require one of the Latin American countries to send a government plane and arrange for diplomatic clearance all along the way — a long shot with no ironclad guarantee of safe passage for Snowden.

If Snowden takes a regularly scheduled commercial flight out of Moscow, any country it flies over could order it to land.

And finding a path that doesn’t overfly a U.S.-friendly country is nearly impossible. A blogger for The Washington Post made a stab at coming up with such routes this week, including one that would carry Snowden to Iran and then Africa. All the routes were dubious and risky, the blogger concluded.

“He’s in a pickle,” the aviation expert said, adding that he couldn’t recall a similar case in his long career in the industry. “He’d want to be sure that every country he’s flying over or refueling in wouldn’t arrest him.”

And lurking under all the problems with air travel is another logistical kink: Snowden’s lack of travel documents. His U.S. passport was revoked, so it’s unclear how he’d be processed out of Moscow. In other asylum cases, those not involving fugitives accused of revealing state secrets, refugees have traveled on specially issued United Nations passports, or other temporary documents issued by individual countries.

One factor in his favor, analysts say, however, is the shrewd way Snowden appears to be using his revelations in his case for sanctuary. While governments might expect and forgive the United States for its global surveillance dragnet, ordinary people all over the world have expressed outrage at the program’s scope and targets.

Snowden has leaked damning information about the U.S. spying on China, the European Union and Latin American nations — all places that are instrumental to his safe passage. In deciding whether to ground a plane that might be carrying Snowden, experts said, nations would have to weigh bilateral relations with the United States against the folk-hero status Snowden enjoys among many of their own citizens.

“Everyone wants plausible deniability,” said David Gomez, a former FBI assistant special agent-in-charge and counterterrorism program manager who retired recently after nearly three decades at the agency. “The other nations might assist us, but nobody wants the award for helping us nab Snowden.”

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livinginhawaii wrote:
I bet he ends up chartering a small plane to an unfriendly port where he then jumps on a ship. No one appears to be talking about that route...
on July 11,2013 | 08:15AM
Morimoto wrote:
NO one's talking about that because it's very unlikely. He wouldn't have any documents to support his stay there? If he did that he'd be living as an undocumented alien in whatever country he choses. Not exactly a smart thing to do.
on July 11,2013 | 09:30AM
false wrote:
The US government has aided brutal dictators escape from justice, but will bully other countries trying to aid Snowden. Why? Because he has exposed massive violations of the rights of Americans AND OTHERS to be secure in their personal communications. He has greatly damaged the claims of "American Exceptionalism" that the US is a noble nation, exempt from the selfish actions and motives of other countries. The "One Indispensible Nation" stands exposed on the world stage as a blackmailer and a bully, out to dominate the rest of the world by spying on, bribing and, when that doesn't work, threatening its leaders.

I think Snowden has struck a major blow for human rights. And I believe, as did our "Founding Fathers," that the right against unwarranted, unreasonable search is a FUNDAMENTAL human right. That right has NOT changed, even as the technology for violating it has. But the number of Americans who understand, or care about, the Bill of Rights, is shrinking every year. Shame.

on July 11,2013 | 08:24AM
Morimoto wrote:
I have never believed in "American Exceptionalism" or whatever you call it. The U.S is just like other nations in that it wants to protect it's own self-interests, it's just that since the U.S. is the most powerful nation in the world, they can manipulate the media and public opinion into thinking otherwise. Ex. Iraq and Afghanistan, if you think for one second that their primary mission is to help the people there live better lives, you'd be dead wrong.
on July 11,2013 | 09:33AM
AhiPoke wrote:
Wow, what a comment. I'm not a fan of our governments, at all levels, but you've taken an an extreme position. If I felt like you appear to, I'd be considering moving.
on July 11,2013 | 12:56PM
Morimoto wrote:
I may move but it won't be because of the government, it'll be because of personal reasons. Your comment exemplifies the naivete that I find common in America, especially in Hawaii regarding America's actions overseas. I feel the same about your comment as you do about mine.
on July 11,2013 | 01:34PM
Manoa2 wrote:
Who says or what court says the NSA/Patriot Act program is unconsitutional? There is a court that has to review every NSA request--the special court judges happen to be conservative Republican judges appointed by Conservative and strict constructionist Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, John Roberts. conservative justice and strict constructionist. Two of the special judges have ruled Obamacare violated the US Constitution. Technology has changed the privacy laws-- If you plot or conspire over citizen's band radio, uusecured coffee shop wifi, unencrypted cell phone or home wife, or plot or conspire on google, facebook, twitter, or any social media, you have no right to privacy and what you say can be used against you in a court of law. Same for doing something illegal and being spotted by spy sattelites or surveilance cameras.
on July 11,2013 | 11:54AM
false wrote:
Manoa, You choose to believe this surveillance is only directed at those "who plot." But the reports are that it is design to collect everyone's information, as broadly as possible, then archive it in a searchable database for closer examination by interested parties. Contrary to your claim that each search must be authorized by the FISA court, that has not been the practice at all. Rather than requiring evidence of "probable cause" that a specific individual may be involed in terrorist activities, the court has signed off on criteria which allow the collection of communications which meet those GENRAL criteria. That is NOT the constitutional standard. I don't care whether the judges are all conservative Republicans (though 10 of the 11 are). It violates the clear language of the Constitution.

Maybe you are not one of the conservatives who were upset about the "targeting" of Tea Party groups by the IRS for closer scrutiny. But I find it odd that those who were ready to holler about that scrutiny and bending over backwards to trust the same "Kenyan Socialist Crypto-Muslim" with control over all our private communications? You think the IRS might target people for political reasons but no agencies (or individuals)with access to the NSA files will do the same? Maybe you slept through the J. Edgar Hoover years when Hoover was blackmailing top government officials to get his way?

on July 11,2013 | 08:26PM
cojef wrote:
The problem Snowden has is thate he is "stateless" and cannot get aboard a plane, unless he flies on an airline that is of the country that is granting him amnesty. After the Bolivian President Morales incident, and the negative publicity it received by the countries that diverted his plane, any subsequent flights will not be interrupted, methinks. The problem is, will Russia allow Snowden to leave. No one really has seen Snowden. For all intent and purposes, he could be debriefing all of the data that is unknown to the Russians that we have, without Snowden being aware that he was debriefed. The Russian have been known to use mind altering drugs that is very subtle. After all Snowden has to eat, drink, sleep and all other activties connected with living and it is darn easy to slip a mickey into his food.
on July 11,2013 | 08:53AM
lowtone123 wrote:
Not flying the freindly skies.
on July 11,2013 | 10:15AM
Ripoff wrote:
haha small kine stuck??
on July 11,2013 | 11:12AM
entrkn wrote:
the firing squad is already taking target practice...
on July 11,2013 | 11:25AM
HawaiiCheeseBall wrote:
Once again, far too easy. Put him in the ADX Florence supermax prison. Lock him in that little cage of a cell for his brain and body to rot away. Deprive him from any computers and communication gear, that alone will drive him nuts. After about 50 years in the cage let him out to see a world which he will not be able to recognize or understand, he will be all alone as everyone around him has moved on or passed away. He will just be a scared, broken, old man walking around telling people "Don't you know who I am?" and everyone will just ignore him and assume its dementia..
on July 11,2013 | 12:22PM
false wrote:
You sound like a sadist who may be a greater threat to our way of life than Snowden. I'll see if I can use my connections to get access to the files on you. Surely you have some text messages, emails or phone calls you don't want shared publicly? Perhaps some naughty websites you don't want your spouse or co-workers to know about?
on July 11,2013 | 08:29PM
gobows wrote:
Hope he's enjoying his new life.
on July 11,2013 | 11:43AM
Denominator wrote:
This is just the kind of escape plan you would expect from a high school drop out.
on July 11,2013 | 12:05PM
scooters wrote:
Let him 'Rot" in Russia..
on July 11,2013 | 12:06PM
hon2255 wrote:
Let him rot in a labor camp in Siberia! the traitor .
on July 11,2013 | 12:26PM
Morimoto wrote:
Good luck Snowden. You exposed the U.S. government for what they really are at great risk to yourself. I personally don't think of you as a traitor or a hero, but someone who is doing what he believes is right, no matter the personal costs. Even those that don't believe in your cause have to admit you have major balls to do what you did.
on July 11,2013 | 01:38PM
false wrote:
Thank you, Morimoto, for retaining some decency and common sense when so many seem to have slipped towards the sadistic, dark side of fake patriotism in their anger against Snowden. You have done a small service to the decency in this country with your small post here.
on July 11,2013 | 08:31PM
RYMATS wrote:
Mr. M, you no like Hawaiians, you no like 'naive' Americans, you no like our Government, braddah, Time to take a hike and follow your Hero and Dreams. I am sure, Russia, Venezuela, Argentina, etc. would love to have you and would love to share sentiments with you. Good luck on your negativity, disloyalty and efforts in finding better people and a place outside of Hawaii and the USA that will entertain and allow you to express your attitude and ideals openly.
on July 11,2013 | 03:39PM
2disgusted2 wrote:
But what is the point of all the spying if when the US are informed or told or know of spy activities of certain Chinese they don't do anything about it and keep letting those people work in high powered positions with access to people like Hillary Clinton and APEC delegates.. so what's the point of all the spying anyway?
on July 11,2013 | 07:43PM
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