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Edward Snowden, professed NSA leaker, may have few safe havens

7:00 PM, Jun 11, 2013   |    comments
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(NBC NEWS) -- The self-identified source who leaked documents to The Guardian and The Washington Post regarding top-secret government surveillance programs may face limited options if he is charged and the United States tries to extradite him.

Edward Snowden, 29, has been called a hero and a traitor since his name became attached to the high-profile disclosure of classified documents to reporters. A three-month employee of government consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton - the company has since terminated him - Snowden was interviewed by the Guardian at a Hong Kong hotel where he first took refuge after fleeing the United States. It is unclear whether he remains there.

"As a U.S. citizen, I think it is very hard to avoid getting sent back to the U.S. There are certain countries that might grant him asylum, but that very much depends on whether the country is willing to go to battle with the U.S. over this issue," said attorney Robert Anello, a New York attorney who has handled extradition cases.

The United States has bilateral extradition treaties with 109 countries, from Albania to Zimbabwe, according to the State Department. Mainland China, however, does not make the list. Neither do places such as Andorra, Bermuda, Croatia, Indonesia, many African nations and most of the former Soviet republics.

The most immediate concern for the U.S. government may be ensuring that Snowden doesn't disappear from their radar, said Andrew Lourie, an international judgment enforcement attorney at Kobre & Kim.

"With respect to getting him back, they have a couple different ways to go about it," Lourie said. Given Snowden's American citizenship, the government could ask for authorities in Hong Kong to deport Snowden "as a matter of international comity."

While Snowden's exact whereabouts remain unclear, some countries have indicated that they may be more hospitable to the man who told reporters that his first job with the National Security Agency was as a security guard.

"I think it is really tragic that an American has to move to a place that has a reputation for less freedom," Snowden said in an interview with The Guardian. "Still, Hong Kong has a reputation for freedom in spite of the People's Republic of China."

Hong Kong, where Snowden seems to have first sought refuge, may not have been the best choice, should the U.S. move to extradite him. Returned to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong has a rendition treaty with the American government, and any request could still be subject to final approval from the government in Beijing.

"China is going to have to determine whether its foreign policy is consistent with such an extradition," Anello said. "Countries could decide for political reasons just to ship someone back to the U.S. A country like China may decide it isn't worth the hassle or the bad relations."

Another nearby option, if Snowden's looking to get out of Hong Kong in a hurry, might be Taiwan, but it's far from clear that he'd be welcome there. The country doesn't have a formal extradition agreement with the U.S., and reviews each case individually, the Associated Press reported.

Snowden has indicated that if he has the chance he might be headed for cooler climes, and follow in the footsteps of chess champ Bobby Fischer, who died in Iceland in 2008 after being granted citizenship.

"My predisposition is to seek asylum in a country with shared values," Snowden said in his interview with the Guardian. "That nation that most encompasses this is Iceland. They stood up for people over Internet freedom."

An Icelandic group that works on speech and media issues has said it would lobby the country's interior ministry to grant Snowden asylum should he apply.

"We are currently attempting to get in touch with Mr. Snowden to confirm that this is his will and discuss the details of his asylum request," the International Modern Media Institute said in a statement. "Our next step will be to assess the security implications of asylum, as it is possible that Iceland may not be the best location, depending on various questions regarding the legal framework - all of these issues will be taken into account."

Vladimir Putin's Russia said it would entertain a request for asylum from Snowden, a spokesman told a newspaper in the country.

"We will act upon a fait accompli," Dmitri Peskov said in response to the newspaper Kommersant, according to the Washington Post. "If the request is filed, it will be considered. There can be no subjunctive mood in such cases."

With so much yet unknown about Snowden and the programs he claims to have had a hand in exposing, it may be impossible to say whether any country would be willing to keep him on its turf in the face of an irate U.S. government.

"The difficulty for someone like Mr. Snowden is that the political winds can shift, and while he may be in favor today, he may be out of favor tomorrow," Anello said.

By Matthew DeLuca, Staff Writer, NBC News

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