A Leaker in Limbo

NSA leaker Edward Snowden finds how hard it is to make friends on the international stage.

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Despite all the national security and intelligence leaks that have sprouted in the last few weeks after the document-dumping of accused thief Edward Snowden, one thing remains tantalizingly untold: what the heck happened to get Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to suddenly start being so cooperative?

When a nation is a superpower – or what qualifies as a superpower in a post-Cold War world – other nations love to stick their metaphorical fingers in its eye. Putin, in particular, is carrying a pretty heavy grudge and is hardly known as a defender of liberty.

Snowden continued his ego trip from Hong Kong to Moscow – reportedly en route to Cuba and then to South America, where the self-professed whistleblower imagined he'd be welcomed as a hero and given political asylum. But he has been stuck in the unusually uncomfortable area of the transit lounge of an Eastern European airport for a week. And Putin, who initially was irritating U.S. officials by saying Snowden wasn't really in Russia because he hasn't gone through passport control, is now singing a different tune.

Putin said Monday that Snowden could stay in Russia, but on the condition that he "must stop his work aimed at harming our American partners." That was a remarkable standard, given that Putin is far less helpful on things like Syria, and it sent a pretty strong message to Snowden. Snowden, bolstering his image as the prototypical slacker with a laptop at Starbucks, has declined, petulantly describing himself as a "stateless person." Of course he did – how could he live without sustaining the notoriety of a young man, a "hacker," as President Obama aptly put it – living off the public anger and diplomatic upheaval he's caused with his illegal, alleged disclosure of classified information?

[ See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

Correa, too (after a conversation with Vice President Biden) has yanked back the welcome mat. Snowden initially was given the impression that he could get asylum in Ecuador, which made sense, since WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been living in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to escape extradition to Sweden on sexual assault charges. While Ecuador had given everyone the impression that the case was a delicious opportunity to needle the United States, Correa made a 180-degree turnaround, calling it a " mistake" to imply Snowden was welcome there.

The Guardian reports:

Asked if he thought the former NSA contractor would ever make it to Quito, he replied: "Mr. Snowden's situation is very complicated, but in this moment he is in Russian territory and these are decisions for the Russian authorities."

On whether Correa would like to meet him, the president said: "Not particularly. He's a very complicated person. Strictly speaking, Mr. Snowden spied for some time."

[ VOTE: Should the U.S. Be Spying on the EU?]

As for Assange, Correa indicated that the Ecuadorian ambassador to Britain felt a personal obligation to Assange, seeing him as a victim. Correa told the paper:

Look, he [Assange] is in the embassy, he's a friend of the consul, and he calls him at four in the morning to say they are going to capture Snowden. The [consul] is desperate – "how are we going to save the life of this man?" – and does it.

So I told him: OK, if you think you did the right thing, I respect your decision, but you could not give, without authorization, that safe conduct pass. It was completely invalid, and he will have to accept the consequences.

One wonders, too, how long Assange will be able to hide out in the embassy. The current ambassador may feel he is doing a rescuer's work, but the next person to hold that job may not want a houseguest who can't – or won't – leave.

Something happened – perhaps during Biden's call with Correa, or after "high level" talks between the United States and Russia – to get more cooperation from those nations' leaders. That's where diplomacy trumps intelligence-gathering, and certainly trumps the mission of a man who sees himself as a martyr. In fact, he is not a martyr, or he would have turned himself in and faced the consequences after breaking the law, however wrong he thought the law might be. Snowden's 15 minutes of fame might not end with the celebrity retirement he had hoped for.