Updated 1/24/2014; 5/01/2014 and 5/31 with some additional links and background and a few corrections, following publication of Luke Harding's and Glenn Greenwald's books.
I often find that people arguing on Twitter on behalf of Snowden use as one of their key arguments the notion that he was "driven" into the arms of the Russians by the US revoking his passport.
Over and over again, as an argument against finding anything suspicious in his sojourn in Russia and possible cooperation with Russian intelligence, supporters invoke the idea that "he had no choice" because the US government ostensibly "blocked all his exits".
Today, WikiLeaks changed their narrative to admit that they advised Snowden to go to Russia where he would be "safe" (although not for the first time -- Assange has made this point before as Michael Kelley has pointed out).
In researching this story as it unfolds, I have to say that this is the weakest argument on Snowden's behalf on two legs, but most people never really bore down into the details to see why it ever got legs in the first place.
First, let's look at the complete timeline of events -- the accurate and actual timeline, and not the one that most people cherry-pick selectively or remember selectively:
May 1 Snowden and his girlfriend leave their rented house in Hawaii because the lease is up. The landlord confirms this to media.
May 1-19 Snowden goes to another rental house -- or so we're told from some news sources. At some point his girlfriend conveniently goes away on a trip, and Snowden is missing -- i.e. he is not placed anywhere reliably although likely he remains in Hawaii. At some point he tells his new employee of only about two months, Booz, Allen Hamilton that he needs to take unscheduled leave to treat his epilepsy. But he doesn't go to any hospital and his location during these long three weeks is not confirmed. Did he stay in the rental house? Did he go anywhere else during this period?
May 17 Snowden has his last day of work at Booz, Allen where he steals his last set of documents. Why doesn't he leave to go abroad on this day? What does he do on May 17 and 18 while his girlfriend is away on a trip evidently?
May 19 or 20 Snowden flies to Hong Kong, by his account. (The difference may be explained by the time difference.) He checks into the Mira Hotel, according to news reports -- but this is not confirmed. He is in touch with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras by their admission and likely Jacob Appelbaum about his stolen files. He insists Poitras and Greenwald come to Hong Kong.
May 30 A close friend of Appelbaum's sends a tweet about a Rubik Cube's party. She is one of the people attending the Spring Break of Code in Hawaii at the time both Appelbaum and Snowden were also known to be in Hawaii. Were they in touch earlier than they said?
May 31 Greenwald and Poitras (and Appelbaum?) travel to Hong Kong on this date (according to Greenwald's interview with Haaretz) or June 1 according to Guardian later. Which is it? They make contact with Snowden June 3rd using an agreed sign of recognition-- he is to be carrying a Rubik's Cube. Poitras films Greenwald, and also makes a written interview with him, both of which she later publishes with Appelbaum sharing the by-line.
June 3 According to Luke Harding, this is the date in fact when Greenwald and Poitras met with Snowden at the Mira Hotel. What were they doing for the other days if they in fact arrived earlier in Hong Kong? Which is correct? Greenwald himself then gives this date in his book, not June 1st, as the Guardian originally reported. Why the discredpancy?
June 5 Greenwald's first story about Verizon and meta-data appears in The Guardian.
June 8 Greenwald publishes his second story about "Boundless Informant".
June 9 Snowden decides to go public.
June 10 Snowden checks out of his Hong Kong hotel.
June 10 or? Sarah Harrison leaves Melbourne, where she was on WikiLeaks business, at Assange's behest, to fly to Hong Kong to help Snowden because Greenwald and Poitras have ostensibly abandoned hm.
June 11 Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, offers Snowden to apply for asylum. Russia doesn't have many refugees and an invitation at the presidential level is as good as a granting of asylum because it's a political decision in this sort of case.
June 12 Lana Lam of the South China Morning Post publishes the first interview with Snowden outside the Guardian; he explains that he deliberately got employment at Booz, Allen in order to hack more documents better.
June 13 US opens up a criminal case on charges of espionage against Snowden and warn countries not to accept him.
June 14 The Home Office instructs airlines not to allow Snowden to board any flights to the UK.
June 15 -- British authorities bar his overflight and Iceland says it can only consider his application if he comes to their country.
June 16 -- Hong Kong authorities say they would review US extradition request re: Snowden.
June 20 -- US sends extradition request to Hong Kong.
June 20 Snowden arrives at the Russian consulate in Hong Kong -- or at the apartment of a Russian diplomat -- or at some safe house where he makes contact with Russians -- with a ticket to Cuba via Moscow already in hand. He stays overnight.
June 21 Snowden celebrates his 30th birthday in the Russian consulate in Hong Kong, according to Kommersant, the Russian business daily.
June 21 or 22 US revokes passport (we don't know the exact date.)
June 23 Snowden departs Hong Kong for Moscow.
June 23 US State Department tells journalist it has revoked passport (we don't know exactly when) but not citizenship; then public statement is made about the revocation of citizenship.
June 24 Journalists get on a flight to Cuba based on reports that Snowden is on it; he isn't.
Snowden then goes on to ostensibly stay six weeks at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, although according to Russian media, he was met on the tarmac 23 June by the Ecuadoran and Venezuelan diplomats who wisked him away to one of their residences. Ultimately he is granted asylum just as Putin had indicated he would be back on June 11.
So once you see the time-table laid out, you have a number of questions you have to ask (if you didn't ask them before back in 2009 when Snowden was in Geneva, had his first clash with his bosses and his first adverse performance notice while working at the CIA.)
Number one: why didn't Snowden immediately flee to Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador or even Brazil, where Greenwald is based, immediately, starting May 1st or May 17 or whatever date he told his bosses he was going on unscheduled medical leave -- when he in fact decided to leave his job under a pretext and make the final break from his life as an NSA contractor?
At any time he could have simply fled to Latin America to any of those countries. He had just as much ease of doing this as he had in flying to Hong Kong three weeks later. He could have immediately fled to Cuba BEFORE revealing his identity even after meeting Greenwald and Poitras.
Any time during May or June he could have made this flight to any of these Latin American countries, particularly BEFORE he revealed his identity.
So why didn't he?
Claims that this would have triggered more alarms at his workplace or from NSA that kept employees routinely under surveillance don't wash -- a trip to Hong Kong suddenly is just as suspicious as a trip to Venezuela.
Claims that he "wasn't safe" in Latin America from supposed CIA abduction or extradition from governments supposedly too weak to withstand pressure just doesn't wash --after he revealed his identity, ostensibly to prevent just such a clandestine or overt development. The CIA isn't going to kidnap such a very public figure at that point and then look even more guilty of the crimes supposedly US intelligence is committing. Ecuador, which accepted Assange into their Embassy in London, is not going to just give up Snowden. Just not going to happen. Nor in the even more highly anti-American countries Cuba and Venezuela. Even Brazil, given the Rouseff claims and Greenwald's considerable clout, would be safe enough.
But there are more questions, obviously.
What did Snowden do during those three weeks in May? Was he busy shoveling 200,000 documents into cyber vaults with Appelbaum's help? Or what, exactly? Was he talking to the Chinese or the Russians? Was WikiLeaks, and then "helping" him -- without explaining they were talking to the Chinese and the Russians?
And once he got to Hong Kong and gave away the store, and was told that his hopes were dashed, that "China, which isn't our enemy" (as he claimed in his interview with Poitras) wasn't going to risk taking him for their own pragmatic reasons -- why didn't he immediately, on June 6 or even June 10th flee before the US had an extradition request out?
Because it didn't have the extradition request sent until June 20.
That's nearly two weeks when he could have fled somewhere, but didn't.
Where did Snowden go on June 10? Did his Hong Kong lawyers put him up? Did he in fact go to the Russian consulate then -- which accounts for why Putin issued this generous invitation to apply for asylum on June 11? Otherwise, why did Putin -- at his level! -- get involved so quickly? Putin claimed later he didn't "need" to "sheer this hairless pig". So why even bother? Why does no one ever ask that question?
When the facts came out in the Russian media that Snowden had been in the Russian consulate on June 20-21, Putin himself confirmed this, admitting that it hadn't been mentioned before. This caused a funny thing to happen -- Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden's lawyer who helped him with his asylum claim and who has close ties to the FSB, had at first lied and said that Snowden wasn't in the consulate to the media. Imagine how he must have felt when Putin himself contradicted him.
Does this show disarray in the Russian government or a war within Russian intelligence about what to do with Snowden? Or just the usual Russkaya khalatnost'? (incompetence and negligence).
Then there's this question to ask: when did Snowden buy his ticket, exactly?
According to Kommersant's source, he arrived with the ticket to Cuba already in hand in the Russian consulate on June 20, before the US revoked his passport, on the day that the US issued the extradition request (but had not yet revoked his passport).
Obviously, he couldn't have bought the ticket after this, with no valid passport; with the clock ticking on the extradition, and his Hong Kong lawyers telling him that China would not offer his asylum. Likely, he had to buy it before -- on June 19th or earlier.
Why? Because you cannot buy a ticket board a plane to Cuba via Moscow without showing your passport. He likely knew or was informed by his Hong Kong lawyers that once the extradition request went out and Hong Kong had already told him that a) they would not give him asylum b) they had no objection if he left (according to Kommersant), then he would realize he had to get on a plane soon -- and without a passport, he would be blocked soon.
Russians and indeed most countries -- and hence most airlines! -- will insist on a show of a passport to get a visa and you must indicate your flights and travel plans on the visa application purchase a ticket -- and in the case of Russia, and Cuba, for Americans, you have to show a valid visa along with your passport to board the plane. These are not countries where Americans can just pick up visas at the airport by paying a fee. They have to get those visas way in advance.
While Snowden could get by without a visa to Russia, if he were only supposedly transiting Russia to Cuba, he would still need a Cuban visa.
Note: updated to make it clear that a) if he used a travel agent (unlikely, as he wouldn't want to attract attention), *that agency* could have asked for his passport to buy his ticket and apply for his visa all at once. But he likely did *not* use a travel agency, ordered the ticket online, but still had to get a visa for Cub -- or some intercession from Russia.
Usually two weeks or more is what it takes; express visas still take 5 days often. So did Snowden in fact visit the Russian consulate BEFORE the 20th to get a visa? Or the Cuban consulate to get a visa? How was this done? When?
It's here that your typical Anonymous Twitter arguer claims that the US "bullied" Cuba into not accepting Snowden. The State Department asked Cuba not to accept him -- but since when does Cuba do what the State Department tells them?!
And here we have Fidel Castro himself in an oped piece in the Guadian telling us that it's not true, Cuba most certainly did not buckle to this request.
So...why didn't Snowden go to Cuba on June 24th? Is Castro lying? Was Snowden going to stay in Russia the whole time anyway, and this was a distraction?
There's another date to pin down here, and that's the date the US actually revoked the passport. The announcement was made on June 23rd, but it was likely done on June 22nd; indeed Cyrus Farivar of Ars Technica report it as revoked on the 22nd. It might have been made earlier, but not THAT much earlier because Snowden bought his ticket. Note:
“Such a revocation does not affect citizenship status,” Jen Psaki, a State Department spokesperson told Ars.
As explained, you cannot, as an American, buy a ticket to Havana or Moscow without showing a passport and a visa.
While it's possible "the system" didn't get the news flash that the passport was pulled right away, for something like this, you might think that all the red buttons would have been punched. So that means it's most likely that Snowden bought the ticket with the passport still valid, before it was pulled, on the 20th or possibly even earlier, after the extradition notice was issued and his lawyers informed him that it was not likely it would be disobeyed. Why did he then delay his departure -- with the clock ticking? What deal was he trying to get...with which country? China or Russia?
He would have been able to buy the ticket a still-valid passport -- not pulled, and therefore not forcing him into any particular travel arrangement -- on the 20th.
You know, instead of sitting and partying with the Russians for two days, Snowden could have used the two days before his passport was revoked to go somewhere else -- anywhere else -- particularly Latin America.
See, it's this detail about how Russia and its old pupil Cuba work when it comes to controlling foreigners travelling to their countries that so stands out for us Russia-watchers.
That's why we can't believe that Snowden "decided on the fly" to go to Russia or stay in Russia after he got there.
He had to have gotten a visa; more to the point, so would Sarah Harrison, his WikiLeaks compansion and minder -- and perhaps she already had a multiple-entry visa to Russia due to her work on Mediastan for Wikileaks, or easily arranged an invitation, which is required by Russian law for foreigners to have longer stays.
The visit to the consulate on the 20th with the ticket already in hand might have been used to pick up a visa, but usually the way things work, that would have had to have been done before the purchase.
My bet is that with WikiLeaks help, Snowden dealt with the consulate much earlier -- but maybe hadn't gone in person, maybe Sarah Harrison did all the menial work of filling out applications, attaching photos and taking them over to the Russians. When did she arrive in Hong Kong? We only know from her statement covered in the Daily Mail that she went "in June". When? She isn't in the film or mentioned in the stories, but she is there, in the background performing these kinds of tasks obviously.
I think it's quite possible that even as early as May, again, there could have been chats with the Russians via Assange and Harrison or others about Snowden coming to Russia.
Don't forget, WikiLeaks has quite a base of operations in Russia, as I establish here and here. When they released the film Mediastan recently, which they had working on for years, we realize that not only do they have Israel Shamir, the notorious pro-Kremlin provocateur and antisemite who has definitely performed work for WikiLeaks and represented its interests despite WikiLeaks denials -- and whose idea it was to organize the airport meeting with Snowden -- but also his son Johannes Walstrohm, also a disgraced journalist and antisemite working for WikiLeaks directly -- about whom WL doesn't make any denials but instead credits him as the producer of their video Mediastan.
In addition, they have Russian Reporter and other film-makers, journalists, and assorted helpers in Russia, quite a crew to help out something like the care and feeding-- and the recruitment and tasking, too? -- of Edward Snowden.
So this is a story not only with just too many coincidences -- as John Schindler points out on his blog -- but too many holes and too many questions.
Snowden could have fled anywhere in the world before his identity was publicized; it was his call. He had weeks to make this decision, even if something spooked him into fleeing earlier than planned, i.e. a fear that someone at his job had already caught him. He could have gone to Latin American at any time during the weeks he hung out in Hong Kong, with a valid passport, and long before the US issued their extradition request -- which wasn't until June 20th -- a month after he arrived in Hong Kong!
So the idea that he was "forced"to go to Russia because "he had no choices" is as big a lie as any told in this entire caper, and it should help to unravel the entire false narrative.