Is Snowden's Flight to Cuba All a Ruse?

Brian Fung

Edward Snowden was set to board a flight Monday afternoon, Moscow time, taking him from Russia to Cuba.

He never made it on the plane.

Once again, Snowden’s whereabouts is a mystery. Aeroflot confirmed that Snowden’s flight left the gate, but a reporter on board while the plane was taxiing tweeted this photo of Snowden’s empty seat, 17A.

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The flight is Aeroflot Flight 150, which departed Moscow at 2:05 p.m. local time today; it’s due to arrive in Cuba at 6:45 p.m. Havana time.

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If Snowden isn’t on that flight, it’s likely he’s still in the international terminal at Sheremetyevo Airport. The NSA leaker has been working with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange—no stranger to avoiding law enforcement—to find asylum someplace ever since leaving Hong Kong. Snowden may now be physically in Russia, but he hasn’t yet technically crossed the border. That’s an important distinction, as there are no international warrants for Snowden’s arrest—and a convenient pretext for the Kremlin to avoid getting involved.

A senior U.S. official on Monday sent an e-mail to reporters criticizing Snowden for his escape to countries that lacked "transparency."

Ecuadorian officials confirmed receiving a request for asylum after reportedly meeting with Snowden at Sheremetyevo. Having missed his connection, Snowden may still try another route to Ecuador—in which case, the flight to Havana may turn out to have been a deliberate distraction while WikiLeaks ships him out some other, quieter way.

Update, 08:50 Eastern: The Russian news agency ITAR-TASS is reporting that Snowden's flight to Cuba would have traversed U.S. airspace and been vulnerable to interdiction.

Meanwhile, from Hanoi, Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, defended his government's decision to consider Snowden's asylum request. "We also take our sovereign decisions and we are, of course, aware of the consequences," he said. Ecuador has not made a decision about whether to grant Snowden asylum, saying that it will decide "in due time," according to Reuters.

Update, 10:51 Eastern: In a conference call, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange confirmed that Snowden left Hong Kong on Sunday but wouldn't confirm where he is now. Assange did hint that WikiLeaks' legal team helped Snowden with multiple asylum requests, "possibly to other countries" beyond Iceland and Ecuador. Russia apparently was not informed about Snowden's plan to travel to Moscow—nor have Russian security services had an opportunity to debrief Snowden, Assange said.