Europe

Edward Snowden: Diplomatic fall-out over flight from US

Plane about to take off for Cuba from Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport in 27 June 2013
Image caption Edward Snowden was believed to be taking this flight from Moscow to Cuba, but has not been seen on the plane

A whistle-blower protecting individual privacy and unmasking governmental hypocrisy, or traitor to his country?

Whatever the verdict on Edward Snowden's activities, his leaking of details of a vast US operation to access and monitor communications inevitably has serious diplomatic repercussions.

And his flight from US jurisdiction - reportedly from Hong Kong to Moscow en route, possibly, to Ecuador - is throwing up problems for the Americans, and indeed his hosts, at virtually every stop.

The timing of his disclosures - just as the US president was meeting his Chinese counterpart, with Chinese computer-hacking high on the agenda - was a gift horse for Beijing.

At a stroke, the US was no longer able to portray China as a cyber-villain.

Washington, Mr Snowden has revealed, was up to a good deal of computerised skulduggery of its own, with China very much the target.

China may have benefited from Mr Snowden's revelations, but it seems that the Chinese authorities saw no advantage in Hong Kong giving sanctuary to the fugitive US intelligence contractor.

Much has been made of Hong Kong's relative legal autonomy.

But few China watchers believe that the Beijing authorities would not have made their preference clear. China, after all, retains responsibility for foreign policy - and the long-term presence of Mr Snowden, and a drawn-out legal wrangle with Washington, would have sullied a sometimes difficult but nonetheless important relationship for both countries.

Better to move Mr Snowden on.

In the event, the Hong Kong authorities said that there were problems with the US legal paperwork - that's why they did not move to arrest him.

"It is unfortunate that Hong Kong inappropriately failed to take action on our request of them and permitted a fugitive to simply leave their country," was the verdict of one senior US official. "Particularly troubling," was how a US Justice Department official characterised Hong Kong's behaviour.

Paradox

Image caption Edward Snowden said he wanted to expose hypocrisy and malpractice

Next it was Moscow's turn to be in the diplomatic cross-hairs.

Here too, US requests seem to have been rebuffed.

By now, Mr Snowden's US passport had been revoked. It was not clear if he was already travelling on Ecuadorean papers. A Russian foreign ministry spokesman professed to know little about the details of Mr Snowden's paperwork and travel plans.

Once again, US frustration was evident; a Justice Department spokeswoman noting that the US had "returned numerous high level criminals back to Russia at the request of the Russian government." Clearly Washington hoped for a reciprocal approach, but Russia would not oblige.

Russia increasingly sees itself as an ideological pole apart from the US, taking its own position on a variety of international issues.

It clearly resents what it sees as US intrusion into Russian domestic affairs - not least US support for civil society groups and advocacy on human rights.

The Snowden affair clearly looks set to provide another irritant in relations between Washington and Moscow.

Now Mr Snowden is heading... well we don't know exactly where, though Ecuador has stated that he has applied for political asylum there.

He may be transiting through Cuba, another ideological opponent of Washington.

Some might say there is something paradoxical about the reported map of Mr Snowden's flight.

Having sought to expose what he regards as hypocrisy and malpractice in the behaviour of US intelligence services, he is now engaged in a tour of a series of countries whose records, human rights organisations say, leave a lot to be desired.