Eyes have turned to Moscow as the world waits to see whether Russian leaders will hand Edward Snowden over to the United States for leaking security secrets, or help the fugitive with his continued flight from American authorities.
On Sunday Snowden landed in the Russian capital, a stop on his reported path to seeking asylum in Ecuador, by way of Cuba. But journalists aboard an early Monday Aeroflot flight to Havana said Snowden failed to board the plane before it took off.
Monday on TODAY, NBC security analyst Michael Leiter said the Russian government has legal authority to send Snowden back to the United States, but suggested that President Vladimir Putin is probably contemplating whether he “actually wants to use his muscle” in a situation that has become an international hot potato.
“My guess is the reason that’s he’s not on that plane is the Russians really do want to consider whether this is the right path to let him leave their airport,” Leiter told TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie.
American authorities have charged Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked top-secret documents about widespread surveillance programs used by the federal government, with espionage. He flew to Moscow from Hong Kong, where he has been hiding since his story first broke.
Leiter said he has no doubt that Chinese authorities were happy to see Snowden leave their country.
“Hong Kong, and the government in Beijing, neither really wanted to be a player in this, and the easiest way for them to get out of it was to let him travel to Moscow,” Leiter said.
Snowden reportedly left with four laptops and several thumb drives' worth of additional information about the surveillance programs. Leiter said he doubts that either the Chinese or Russian government had access to Snowden’s information because “they may not want to get that involved.”
But he believes the information will eventually make its way to the public.
“This is like the movies – there is some other hard drive out there that he has given to other people, so I would be surprised if, even we get him back to the United States, that information isn’t ultimately made public,” Leiter said.
Leiter said the Obama administration could ultimately employ the CIA or some other stealth agency to quietly retrieve Snowden, a process known as rendition.
“We have fundamentally never done that without some explicit or implicit approval by the government and I don’t see that being an option, certainly not in Russia, and I doubt if he makes it to Ecuador that’s a real (option) for the Obama administration either,” Leiter said.