Why Returning to the U.S. May be Snowden’s Best Bet
Policy + Politics

Why Returning to the U.S. May be Snowden’s Best Bet

REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden remained stuck in geopolitical limbo Wednesday, still stuck in the international zone of Moscow’s airport despite reports that he had the paperwork necessary to leave and stay in Russia

It could take up to three months to decide on Snowden’s asylum request. So even if he does leave the airport, he won’t be free: Moscow has made clear that his movements would be restricted.

"He will only be allowed to stay in places designated by Russian law enforcement agencies," Vladimir Volokh, the head of the public council of the Russian Federal Migration Service, told reporters Wednesday.

In other words, if Snowden does decide to leave the airport, Russia's Federal Security Bureau - the new version of the KGB - will be tracking his every move.

In statements made in the wake of his leaks, he billed himself as a modern day patriot. But his country has turned against him. According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 53 percent of Americans believed he should be tried for his leaks, up from 43 percent a month ago.

The turn of public opinion is likely because Snowden’s actions increasingly paint him as more of a traitor than a whistleblower. Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian reporter who broke the Snowden story, said that he revealed U.S. cyber spying on the Chinese to win favor from the country. He’s also aligned himself with a number of countries with shoddy records of protecting the rights he claims to champion.

As of now, Snowden has three options – and none of them are good. He could:

1. Stay in Russia and hope they grant his asylum application.  Anatoly Kucherena, the attorney representing Snowden who has ties to the FSB, said that his client "intends to stay in Russia, study Russian culture."

As The Fiscal Times reported earlier, Americans who were granted asylum in Russia – most notably Lee Harvey Oswald – are spied on constantly and tend to meet unfortunate ends.

Even if Snowden were comfortable with constant surveillance, his life in Russia will be tough. St. Petersburg and Moscow are sophisticated cities, but he’s unlikely to live there.

If history is a guide, he’ll likely be shipped elsewhere and given a bad job with bad pay. Russia is massive – it has nine time zones (it was reduced from 11 in 2010) – and the vast majority of its 143 million people live outside of major cities in the east. Many work menial jobs in agriculture or manufacturing.

The one sector of the Russia economy that is booming is IT. Snowden would likely have no trouble getting a job in that sector, but do you really think Vladimir Putin is going to let Edward Snowden near a computer, let alone one with Internet access?

Chances are he’ll end up like other American defectors: he’ll get an apartment, and he’ll get a bad job that pays a bad salary as his apartment and phone are bugged. Fortunately for him, the Russian ball bearing industry is booming.

Snowden will have a leg up if he likes vodka. Life is so tough there that many find solace in the bottle. A 2009 study determined that 500,000 alcohol-related deaths occurred each year. The average Russian man only lives 60 years.

If Russia allows him to stay, Moscow has opened a diplomatic window to get him back to the United States. Volokh said that Snowden would not be extradited to "any country where his life might be in danger." In diplomatic talk, Volokh just floated a condition for Russia to return Snowden to Washington. The White House simply has to promise not to seek the death penalty for his crimes. This State Department is not likely to ignore this detail as a meeting between Putin and Obama hangs in the balance.

2. He holes up in a friendly embassy. Like Julian Assange, Snowden could seek asylum at an embassy friendly to his cause. Ecuador and Venezuela have all offered him asylum, but Snowden can’t get to them without entering European or American airspace. The next best thing might be the embassy.

But as Assange can tell him, life in an embassy is tough. The Swedish fugitive lives in one room in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. According to reports, he rarely leaves.

Snowden could take up an offer that came from Iran on Wednesday. An Iranian NGO known as “Justice-Seekers Without Borders” said he would be welcome in Iran is he were willing to "elaborate" on any info he has on U.S. spying there.

Of course, Iranian NGOs are closely tied to the government.

3. He could come home and face justice. All things considered, this wouldn’t be a bad play for Snowden. Yes, he’d be arrested, and yes, the criminal evidence against him is pretty damning.

But he’s also a celebrity with powerful advocates in the media. At the very least, he’d get a fair trial. For someone who has proclaimed himself a champion of freedom and justice, a fair shake in the American legal system might be his best bet.