Bolivian officials say President Evo Morales' private plane was rerouted to Vienna, Austria last night after France and Portugal refused to allow it into their airspace over concerns NSA leaker Edward Snowden was on board. Italy shut the door, too. By various reports, the plane was searched, and Snowden was nowhere to be found. A Bolivian official said the South American nation is outraged, and they "have the suspicion" the US is to blame for the unprecedented decision to close airspace to the president's plane. The flight was eventually allowed to continue, after Spain granted them permission to refuel in the Canary Islands. As of 10am ET, the plane is en route over the Atlantic, and you can track it here.
The Guardian has a liveblog with good coverage. Less than a week ago, US President Barack Obama said, "I'm not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker." As many Twitter comedians have pointed out, Snowden just turned 30, so that may explain last night's drama.
If the story is as it appears, the United States has the power to compel other nations to ground a plane carrying a head of state, on the suspicion that it is carrying a whistleblower who says he exposed unjust secrets in an act of conscience. But the story may not be as it appears.
Here's the official statement from the Bolivian government, denouncing what it describes as an unprecedented act of "imperialist" aggression, and the effective "kidnapping" of its president, in violation of international law. Morales calls on the leaders of the countries that denied his plane to explain their "repressive policies."
Earlier in the day, Morales had hinted that Bolivia was ready to offer the former US security contractor asylum, and compared Snowden to historic US hero Paul Revere. Reuters quotes Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca as blaming the forced plane diversion on "unfounded suspicions that Mr. Snowden was on the plane," adding, "we don't know who invented this lie....we want to express our displeasure because this has put the president's life at risk."
Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Schallenberg said Snowden was not with Morales. From all accounts, it appears that Snowden is still stuck in (or near) an airport in Moscow.
Bolivia is one of nearly two dozen countries where Snowden is believed to have sought asylum. U.S. President Obama has warned that any nation's offer of asylum would carry serious consequences.
Bolivian Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra said the U.S. State Department may have been behind the decisions to not allow Morales' plane to land in Portugal or fly over French air space. "We have the suspicion that they (the two European governments) were used by a foreign power, in this case the United States, as a way of intimidating the Bolivian state and President Evo Morales," he said. Another Bolivian official said later that Italy had also refused permission.
Even if Snowden receives the green light for asylum in one nation or another, there is the question of how he will get from one airport to another within Moscow. From the New York Times:
Government planes carrying foreign officials to diplomatic meetings in Moscow typically arrive and depart from Vnukovo Airport, which is also the main airfield used by the Russian government, rather than at Sheremetyevo, where Mr. Snowden arrived from Hong Kong on June 23 hours after American officials had sought his extradition there.
The speculation that Mr. Snowden would hitch a ride on a government jet was discounted by the fact that the plane would have to first make a quick flight from one Moscow airport to the other.
In an interview with the television station Russia Today, Mr. Maduro said he would consider any request by Mr. Snowden. Then, ending the interview with a dash of humor, he said, “It’s time for me to go; Snowden is waiting for me.”
Related: Also last night, longtime government-secrets-publisher John Young's Cryptome.org Twitter account published what security researcher and Wikileaks ally Jacob Appelbaum publicly identified as encrypted messages for PGP keys that "may belong to Snowden and Birgitta Jónsdóttir," as well as others that may be for Bradley Manning and Julian Assange.
Argentina's Cristina Fernandez says an emergency summit will be held in support of Bolivia's Evo Morales, as he flies back home from Austria— Ignacio de los Reyes (@BBC_DelosReyes) July 3, 2013
Bueno, sino le podemos mandar algún juez de acá. Madre de Dios! Qué mundo!— Cristina Kirchner (@CFKArgentina) July 3, 2013
Siiii!, UNA MEDIDA CAUTELAR. No se si ponerme a reír o llorar. Te dás cuenta para que son las medidas cautelares.— Cristina Kirchner (@CFKArgentina) July 3, 2013
Si Austria no lo deja salir o quiere revisar su avión, puede presentarse ante la Corte Internacional de La Haya y pedir…— Cristina Kirchner (@CFKArgentina) July 3, 2013