On Thursday afternoon, Edward Snowden, who is wanted in the U.S. for leaking the secrets of American intelligence agencies, received asylum in Russia for one year and left the transit zone of the Moscow airport where he had been marooned for five weeks. According to his Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden got into a regular taxi cab outside the airport and drove off to an undisclosed location. Out of security concerns, Kucherena said he would not reveal Snowden’s whereabouts, but he gave some indication of the whistle-blower’s options now that he has officially entered Russian territory.
“He can rent a hotel room, an apartment, a house,” Kucherena told the state news agency RIA Novosti. “He can live in a hut. He’s absolutely free.” The only constraints on his freedom in Russia relate to the fact that he is, in the lawyer’s words, “one of the most wanted men in the world.” He became a fugitive in May, when he leaked a cache of secret documents to the press revealing the global surveillance methods of the U.S. National Security Agency. His first haven was in Hong Kong, where he gave his last on-camera interview from a hotel room in June. But on June 23, days after the U.S. government annulled his passport, Snowden flew on to Moscow.
The question of whether or not to grant him asylum has divided both the Russian public and the political leadership in recent weeks. According to a survey released on July 31 by the Levada Center, an independent polling agency in Moscow, 43% of respondents felt that Snowden should be granted asylum, while 29% said that he should not. President Vladimir Putin, apparently keen to avoid an all-out row with Washington, has said that he would prefer for Snowden to fly onward from Moscow to one of the Latin American countries that have offered him asylum. But when Snowden requested asylum in Russia, Putin said, it would only be granted if he stopped “harming the interests of our American partners.” According to Kucherena, Snowden has “guaranteed” that he would abide by Putin’s one condition.
The day before Snowden received Russian asylum, however, his leaks continued to disclose American secrets. The Guardian newspaper published a report on July 31 about a top secret NSA program called XKeyscore, which allows the intelligence agency’s analysts “to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals.” The report was based on information Snowden had provided to the Guardian at some point.
Wikileaks, the anti-secrecy organization that says it has been helping Snowden avoid capture, expressed jubilation over his successful asylum claim in Russia. “We would like to thank the Russian people and all those others who have helped to protect Mr. Snowden,” Wikileaks said on its official Twitter feed. “We have won the battle – now the war.” The organization added that one of its lawyers, Sarah Harrison, who has reportedly been with Snowden throughout his sojourn in the Moscow airport, left the transit zone with him on Thursday.
Kucherena, the lawyer, said that Snowden is not under the protection of any Russian security agencies, but private security companies have offered help. “They are ready to provide entire divisions to ensure his safety,” Kucherena told Vesti FM radio. Asked whether the lawyer might let Snowden stay at his home, Kucherena told RIA Novosti: “It’s possible, but we will not talk about this, since it would be difficult to create normal conditions for his safety.”
The Russian state-funded television channel RT tweeted an image of Snowden’s asylum document, showing a photograph of the whistle-blower and his name rendered in Cyrillic letters. According to Kucherena, it will grant him total freedom to travel and live in Russia until July 31, 2014. His ability to fly around Russia’s nine-time zones may be limited, however, by his finances, Kucherena said. “He really doesn’t have that much money, but so far he’s got enough money to eat.”