Friday, June 21, was the hottest day of the year in Hong Kong – a sweltering 34 degrees. But it was also a hot day for Edward Snowden, the leaker of American secrets hiding out in China’s Special Administrative Region.
In Washington on that day, U.S. federal prosecutors made public allegations of unauthorized communication of classified and national defense information, both charges under the Espionage Act.
In Hong Kong on that day, Snowden received a one-way ticket to Moscow, on Aeroflot, Russia’s state-controlled flag carrier. On that day, he celebrated his 30th birthday in the safety of his new refuge – the Russian Consulate General in Hong Kong.
Located on the 21st floor of a steel and glass skyscraper, the Russian Consulate offered more than a stunning view of Victoria Harbor – it offered shelter from an American arrest warrant.
For two days and two nights, Snowden stayed at the 17-room Russian Consulate before being whisked by car in the early morning hours of Sunday, June 23, for the 10-hour Aeroflot flight to Moscow.
That is the picture that emerges in a front-page article Monday in Moscow’s Kommersant newspaper, based on Russian sources, and from my own interviews with Western sources here.
From the start of Snowden’s Russia saga, Russian officials claimed that they were surprised by Snowden’s arrival June 23 at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport.
“It is true that Mr. Snowden arrived in Moscow, and it really came as a surprise to us,” President Vladimir Putin told reporters in Finland on June 25. “Any accusations against Russia (of aiding him) are ravings and rubbish.”
Later, Russia’s president called Snowden an “an unwanted Christmas present.”
Sources in Moscow differ on how Snowden ended up in the care of Russia.
Some say the Chinese wanted to get rid of Snowden and advised him to try the Russians. Others say Russian officials contacted Snowden at The Mira, the luxury hotel where he was staying in Hong Kong. Another version is that Snowden took a cab from The Mira, passed through the tunnel under Victoria Harbor, got out at the curb of the Sun Hung Kai Centre skyscraper, took an elevator to the 21st floor, and then knocked on the door of the Russian Consulate.
Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, said on June 24 that WikiLeaks paid Snowden’s hotel bill in Hong Kong and bought the Aeroflot ticket for him with a Hong Kong-Moscow-Havana itinerary.
Assange, founder of the group that specializes in publicizing confidential U.S. government communications, has a special relationship with RT, the Kremlin-funded television channel. Last year, RT hired Assange to host a political talk show. The channel, which used to be called Russia Today, gives heavy – and invariable favorable — coverage to Assange, Snowden, and the other American leaker in the news, Bradley (he prefers Chelsea) Manning.
On Monday, Kommersant and other Russian media dwelled on why Snowden never used the second half of his Aeroflot ticket, from Moscow to Havana. The Russian press said that Moscow was stuck with Snowden because Washington pressured Havana to refuse him.
To many in Moscow, Havana has been curiously quiet on the Snowden affair. Soviet-generation Russians remember Cuba as the nation that welcomed American airplane hijackers well into the 1980s.
But change comes even to Cuba, ruled for the last half century by the Castro brothers. In June, President Raul Castro turned 82. Apparently, Cuba’s new generation wants a fresh start with Washington. For Havana, giving refuge to America’s most wanted man is a throwback to the 1960s.
Snowden spent almost six weeks Moscow’s busiest international airport, reportedly in the transit area.
Snowden’s stay at Sheremetyevo Airport was handled very professionally. There were no leaks, no emails to reporters, and no late night telephone calls to his girlfriend in Hawaii. About 3.5 million passengers flowed in and out of the airport during that time, but there were no credible Snowden sightings.
His legal limbo dragged on, according to one Western source here, because Alexander Bortnikov, director of Russia’s FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, hinted to Washington that a spy trade might be possible.
The mystery surrounding Snowden also kept Moscow at the center of international news attention for six weeks.
The sole sighting was on July 12, at a carefully choreographed meeting that a select group of NGOs had at the airport with Snowden and Sarah Harrison, his WikiLeaks traveling companion.
One invitee at that meeting was Anatoly Kucherena, the man who became Snowden’s lawyer and spokesman. It was Kucherena who advised Snowden to drop his asylum requests to other countries – 20 at best count. He should focus on Russia.
Snowden’s lawyer has an interesting background.
Two years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin picked Kucherena to serve on Russia’s Public Chamber, a government oversight body. Putin, a former KBG Colonel, also chose Kucherena to serve on a board that oversees the FSB.
On the Snowden case, Kucherena’s legal advice proved solid. On Aug. 1, Snowden was granted one-year asylum in Russia. That day, he and Sarah Harrison left the airport. They have not been seen in public since.
Within hours after Snowden’s departure from the airport, WikiLeak issued this statement: “”We would like to thank the Russian people and all those others who have helped to protect Mr. Snowden. We have won the battle — now the war.”
Two months ago, on June 25, just after Snowden arrived in Moscow, the South China Morning Post published an interview that had taken place earlier in Hong Kong. In the interview, Snowden said that early this year he took a pay cut and joined Booz Allen Hamilton, the contractor with the National Security Agency. He said his sole purpose was to steal the U.S. government’s cyber spying secrets.
Now that Snowden and his four NSA laptop computers are in the safekeeping of the Kremlin, one question begs an answer: when exactly did the Kremlin enter Snowden’s life?
(Edward Snowden stencil by Eclair Acuda Bandersnatch. Photo: Steve Rhodes/flickr.com)