The hunt for fugitive Edward J. Snowden has all of the elements of a John le Carre spy novel.
As of Tuesday, the man wanted by the U.S. on espionage charges had given U.S. authorities the slip in an international cat-and-mouse chase from the United States to Hong Kong to Moscow, with well-laid plans to fly on to South America (by way of Havana), where he is hoping to be given asylum by Ecuador, the country that is harboring WikiLeaks fugitive Julian Assange in its London embassy.
It is a twisted tale in a sea of ironies and hypocrisies in which Mr. Snowden sees himself as the lone champion of civil liberties and freedom of speech as he nonetheless seeks protection among some of the world's worst despots and anti-free-speech governments, including communist China and Russia, where you can be sent to prison or forced-labor camp for daring to criticize the government or its leaders.
In Ecuador, which Mr. Snowden hopes will be his ultimate destination and safe harbor from U.S. prosecution, he will be embraced by President Rafael Correa, a vehement and hateful enemy of the United States. Since his election in 2007, he has launched a war on freedom of the press, imposing a strict new media law aimed at muzzling his critics, dragging them into court with libel suits, and launching a vindictive crusade to weaken media outlets.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry said it was "no small irony" that Mr. Snowden was seeking protection in countries such as Russia and China, which places strict government limits on Internet access and human rights.
Mr. Snowden's deceptive narrative about what motivated him to steal and expose our most secret defenses against terrorist attacks was as phony as a $3 bill. In interviews, he said he had gradually come to the conclusion that the U.S. international surveillance programs he worked on were a threat to Americans' freedoms and right to privacy.
In fact, in a June 12 interview with the South China Morning Post that was published Monday, Mr. Snowden said that from the very beginning, he sought the subcontractor job with Booz Allen Hamilton at the U.S. National Security Agency to obtain evidence about its surveillance methods.
"My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked. That is why I accepted that position about three months ago," he told the newspaper.
What about this administration's feeble, bungled, impotent efforts to capture Mr. Snowden and bring him back here to be prosecuted to the limit of the law?
U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. made repeated phone calls to his counterpart in Hong Kong, as did other Justice Department attorneys and FBI officials, urging them to detain Mr. Snowden, only to be left twisting slowly in the wind for more than a week by Chinese requests for more information and explanations.
It wasn't until Saturday that senior administration aides to the president, including national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon, reluctantly got into the act, attempting to pressure Hong Kong to respond.
However, it was clear from the beginning that Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous island city that sits within the jaws of China, was taking direct orders from Beijing's leaders, who saw Mr. Snowden as a thorny thicket of diplomatic problems with the United States they did not need or want.
A shadowy envoy was sent from the mainland to Hong Kong to tell Mr. Snowden to leave the country. He was soon on a Russian Aeroflot flight for Moscow with the help of WikiLeak agents, hoping to catch a flight to Havana and from there to Quito, Ecuador, and into Mr. Correa's welcoming arms.
But something happened at a transit area in Moscow's airport that delayed plans to fly to Havana, and that raised suspicions that President Vladimir Putin took advantage of the opportunity to insert himself into the story and perhaps make the Obama administration squirm.
There was something pathetic about Mr. Kerry pleading with Moscow on Monday "to do the right thing. We think it's very important in terms of our relationship."
What relationship? Mr. Putin opposes us on the civil war in Syria and is Bashar Assad's chief weapons supplier and never misses an opportunity to stick it to us. This week was no exception.
As for Mr. Kerry's plea to "follow the rule of law," Mr. Putin made it clear Tuesday that Mr. Snowden will not be extradited to the United States because Russia has no extradition pact with us. Moreover, he argued, Mr. Snowden was in the transit area of the international airport, had not technically crossed the Russian border, and thus was free to travel anywhere he wants.
Clearly, Mr. Putin — like Beijing — was ready and willing to assist Mr. Snowden in any way he could to escape to Ecuador without getting embroiled in a messy dispute of extradition.
Meantime, it's still not clear how much material China and Russian intelligence authorities obtained from the remaining top-secret documents Mr. Snowden is thought to have in his possession.
Mr. Putin said Tuesday that Russian intelligence agencies "didn't work and aren't working" with Mr. Snowden, but you can't believe anything this former KGB agent says.
During his week in Hong Kong, the former NSA worker undoubtedly was debriefed by Chinese intelligence about how the U.S. had hacked into their computer files, and again by Russian agents in his stopover in Moscow.
It is quite likely they have downloaded everything that is stored in Mr. Snowden's laptop.
"That stuff is gone," a former senior U.S. intelligence official who served in Russia told The Washington Post. "I guarantee the Chinese intelligence service got their hands on that right away," he said, adding, "the Russians have that stuff now," too.
We still do not know how much more unrevealed, top-secret intelligence documents he still possesses and how much additional damage he can inflict on our national security before he is caught. And he will be caught.
Meantime, we know that terrorist organizations have already changed the way they communicate as a result of his disclosures. That has significantly raised the risks of future attacks on our homeland.
Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.
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