How the hunt for Edward Snowden, and bad information, stranded Bolivian president

McClatchy Foreign StaffJuly 5, 2013 

— The diplomatic row between the United States and Bolivia began before Friday, when Bolivian President Evo Morales started talking about kicking the U.S. Embassy out of his country.

It began before Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese airspace was closed to Morales’ presidential jet, forcing him to land and spend 13 unplanned hours in Vienna during a trip home from Moscow.

It even began before U.S. officials apparently asked their allies to close their airspace and airports to Morales' jet.

According to Russian news reports, quoting those they described as sources within the Russian Security Services, it began when an American official failed to notice that the target of their hunt – fugitive former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden – was at one airport and the Bolivian presidential jet was taking off from another, about 35 miles of horrible Moscow traffic away.

From official statements and news reports, it’s possible to cobble together the flight of Morales’ official Bolivian air force Dassault Falcon 900EX from Moscow to La Paz and how it became an unprecedented diplomatic incident when it was denied rights late Tuesday to cross through the airspace of four European countries for a needed refueling stop, for fear that the Bolivian president was carrying Snowden to asylum.

Bolivia has referred the matter to the United Nations, South American governments are expressing outrage and the United States is trying hard to distance itself from the affair.

By the time Morales’ jet took off from Moscow’s Vnukovo International Airport, Snowden had been holed up for nine days in the international transit area of Sheremetyevo International Airport, across town from Vnukovo.

Worries that Morales, who was in Moscow for a conference of natural gas-producing nations, might try to spirit Snowden away from international limbo and American justice – Snowden is facing espionage charges for leaking classified documents he accessed through NSA computers – stemmed from remarks the Bolivian president made to Russian television in which he noted his country’s willingness to “shield the denounced.”

“If there were a request made, of course we would be willing to debate and consider the idea,” he said of Snowden’s search for a haven.

But sneaking Snowden onto the Bolivian plane wouldn’t have been a simple matter. As the Russian news service RIA Novosti reported, quoting an unnamed source in the Russian Security Services: “Snowden could not have gotten into the president’s plane. A transfer from Sheremetyevo to Vnukovo is possible only by crossing into the territory of Russia, for which Snowden would have required a transit visa. However, he is not in the possession of such a visa, and we have no information of him crossing into the territory of Russia.”

The flight home to La Paz was 7,770 miles. The presidential Falcon has a range of about 5,000 miles, so the plan was to refuel in Spain’s Canary Islands before flying across the Atlantic.

The jet lifted off just after 8:30 p.m. in Moscow on Tuesday. About two and half hours later, it entered Austrian airspace, having crossed Russia, Belarus, Poland and the Czech Republic without incident.

After the plane had flown over most of Austria, its pilot was told that it couldn’t pass into Italian, French, Portuguese or Spanish airspace, according to the Bolivian government. The pilot was forced to make a hairpin turn only a short time before the plane would have left the skies above Austria. In a recording of the pilot talking to the Vienna control tower sometime around 9:30 p.m., he said, “We need to land. . . . We can’t get a correct fuel indication.”

That led Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca to note that the refusals of Portugal and France “put at risk the life of the president.”

Through the night, photos of Morales wandering the Austrian airport were posted online. He’s shown giving a news conference and watching one taking place in Bolivia. His crew is shown sleeping in chairs.

He reportedly met with Austrian President Heinz Fischer. Austrian Interior Ministry spokesman Karl Heinz Grundboeck said an airport security officer was allowed to walk through the jet to look for Snowden. He said he couldn’t confirm reports that the U.S. Embassy in Austria had asked for help in capturing Snowden.

Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said during an interview on Spanish national television that “We were told that Snowden was inside. I can work with the data they give me. . . . They said they were clear he was inside.”

According to news reports, Morales’ plane was refueled and left Vienna at 11:52 a.m. Wednesday, meaning a stay of nearly 13 hours at the airport, which Bolivian officials likened to “imperialist kidnapping.”

Garcia-Margallo wouldn’t say who “they” were, though when he was asked why European nations had acted the way they did he said, “The reactions of European countries were because the information they gave us was that (Snowden) was inside. We measured the risk. But once I had written assurance that Mr. Snowden was not on the plane . . . I believe in the word of a friendly nation, and Bolivia is a friendly nation.”

By this time, either because the initial refusals had been a mistake, as France claimed, were for technical reasons – Portugal said its airport didn’t have a stairway capable of serving the presidential jet – or were due to international pressure, Morales’ jet was allowed to continue over Europe to the Canary Islands, where it refueled before heading home.

Morales’ jet touched down in La Paz late Wednesday. With time differences, the flight lasted more than a day and half. Morales’ anger clearly hadn’t diminished by Friday, however, when, with the backing of several other South American leaders, he laid the blame on the United States.

“Being united will defeat American imperialism,” he said. “If necessary, we will close the embassy of the United States. We do not need the embassy of the United States.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had the wrong length of time that Bolivian President Evo Morales was in Vienna and the wrong time that his plane left there. This version also has been revised to make clear that the aircraft was registered to the Bolivian government.

Email: mschofield@mcclatchydc.com Twitter: @mattschodcnews

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