And just like that, Edward Snowden's Moscow airport vacation is over.
On Thursday, the NSA leaker's lawyer put him in a taxi and sent him off to a secret location, ending a 39-day stay in Sheremetyevo Airport's so-called "transit zone." Russian migration authorities granted Snowden a one-year temporary asylum, and Anatoly Kucherena, the Russian lawyer who has been assisting his asylum application, proudly displayed a copy of that document for reporters at the airport.
According to Kucherena, Snowden's departure from the airport remained as anonymous as his stay there. Kucherena put him in a taxi, and no one seems to have noticed. "I put him in a taxi 15 to 20 minutes ago and gave him his certificate on getting refugee status in the Russian Federation," Kucherena told Reuters. "He can live wherever he wants in Russia. It's his personal choice."
Where he will stay now remains unclear. Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela -- all of which have embassies in Moscow -- have offered to shelter Snowden, but Kucherena says the former NSA contractor won't be taking a cue from Julian Assange and holing up in a diplomatic compound. "He is the most wanted man on planet Earth. What do you think he is going to do? He has to think about his personal security. I cannot tell you where he is going," Kucherena told Reuters.
The asylum decision for Snowden comes on the heels of Bradley Manning's conviction on five counts of espionage -- a chain of events that has probably produced mixed emotions at WikiLeaks headquarters today. On the one hand, the whistleblower whose disclosures made WikiLeaks a household name now faces a stiff jail sentence; on the other, Snowden's asylum victory gives WikiLeaks, which claims to have been intimately involved in his legal strategy, a much-needed win. WikiLeaks, whose major disclosures have dried up in recent years, has now hitched its star to offering Snowden legal advice. Throughout the Snowden saga, the organization has eagerly thrust itself into the center of the action, and that trend continued on Thursday with a series of tweets from the group's official account:
FLASH: Edward Snowden has successfully acquired refugee status in Russia and will shortly leave the airport.— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) August 1, 2013
FLASH: We can now confirm that Edward Snowden's welfare has been continuously monitored by WikiLeaks staff since his presence in Hong Kong.— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) August 1, 2013
Edward Snowden was granted temporary asylum in Russia for a year and has now left Moscow airport under the care of WikiLeaks' Sarah Harrison— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) August 1, 2013
That last claim -- that Snowden left with WikiLeaks lawyer Sarah Harrison -- contradicts a statement by Snowden's Russian lawyer, Kucherena, that the leaker was alone when he put him in the cab. Why Kucherena and WikiLeaks would contradict each other on this point is not entirely clear, though some evidence of tension between the two camps has recently emerged. Kucherena has been widely described in media accounts as Snowden's lawyer, but in a conference call with reporters last Friday Assange said that he didn't think it was entirely accurate to describe Kucherena as his main legal advisor, noting that Harrison has been actively involved in the case.
The reason for WikiLeaks territoriality is fairly obvious.
Snowden is an international celebrity, and the group is smart enough to realize
when it needs to hold on to a good PR moment. Whether that is in Snowden's
interest is another issue entirely. So far, however, his strategy to evade the clutches
of the U.S. government is working out remarkably well.
Perhaps, somewhere in Moscow, Snowden, Harrison, and Kucherena are knocking back vodkas and caviar. That would seem a fitting end to the Snowden airport affair.