Europe again stuck saying, “They told us they were sure”

The NATO members who refused overflight privileges for Bolivian President Evo Morales are, in the process of trying to justify what they did, revealing more details of what led them to risk such a diplomatic affront. Among other explanations, the Spanish foreign minister explained that “they” told the Spanish “they were sure” Snowden was on board Morales’ plane.

“They told us they were sure… that he was on board,” Mr Garcia-Margallo told Spanish television, without indicating who “they” are.

“And so the reaction of all the European countries that took measures – whether right or wrong – was because of the information that had been passed on. I couldn’t check if it was true or not at that moment because it was necessary to act straight away.”

In point of fact, it’s not yet clear Snowden wasn’t on the plane. While Austrian authorities checked the passports of the known passengers on the plane, they apparently did not conduct a thorough search. And 3 Spaniards who showed up to conduct a search were denied entry (though Morales did stop in the Canary Islands, which would have provided another opportunity to conduct a search on Spanish territory, but by that point Morales was already making a literal international incident about his treatment).

Then yesterday the heads of state from 5 other South American countries gathered in Cochabamba, Bolivia (why not La Paz?) to bitch about the actions of those NATO countries that had insulted Morales. If Snowden was on Morales’ plane, he may well be in any of 6 other countries by now (Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff sent an advisor — and note several attendees would have had to fly over Brazilian airspace to return home).

Or Snowden could be in Austria, which was one of the countries that had said Snowden would need to be in their country before it could consider an asylum request (there were pictures of Morales and Fischer from Morales’ layover that made them look quite jolly).

Or Snowden could still be in Sheremetyevo, though no one has ever seen him there. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov signaled impatience with Snowden today, even though in the past Putin said he would not extradite the leaker. But who knows whether the Russians, who are enjoying this game, are telling the truth?

So Snowden could foreseeably be in Argentina, Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Russia, Suriname, Uruguay, or Venezuela. And there’s no reason to believe we’d know one way or another.

Meanwhile Ecuador chose yesterday, in the wake of the Morales slight, to complain about a bug placed in its Embassy in London. A bug they claim to have found last month.

Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino told a news conference in Quito the bug was found last month when Ecuadorean technicians reviewed the embassy’s wiring.

Now, Ecuador reportedly found the bug in connection with Patino’s trip to London June 16. Which ought to raise questions about why they’ve chosen this moment to make a stink about it. Did they leave it in place to sow disinformation? In any case, the bug has given Ecuador reason to raise tensions with England, which has avoided the badgering the other NATO European countries have.

So who knows where Snowden is? But in the meantime, US intelligence (presumably the “they” who were “sure” Snowden was on Morales’ plane) has been exposed in another potential false certainty, and the South American nations skeptical of the Washington consensus have reasons to make fun of Europe for playing Washington’s poodle.

This entire stink is supposed to be about America’s omnipotent SIGINT dragnet (the power of which is presumably one of the reasons the NATO members are being so compliant with US demands). But somehow that SIGINT hasn’t pinpointed Snowden yet, and may have gotten badly embarrassed by listening into one of its own bugs.

Update: Nicolas Maduro has granted Snowden asylum, as has Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. Which leaves the logistics of getting Snowden to Venezuela if he is not already there.


Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

26 replies
  1. Orestes Ippeau says:

    Why couldn’t “they” be Russia — or even the combined ‘brain trust’ of newly-reaffirmed-besties them and us?

    This entire episode has the vibe of a Seth Rogan movie idea, and we’re MacBride.

  2. Teddy PoliCyBear says:

    “In any case, the bug has given Ecuador reason to raise tensions with England, which has avoided the badgering the other NATO European countries have.”

    Avoiding the badgering: not as highly rated, as one who’s been badgered might tell you….

  3. Ben Franklin says:

    “So who knows where Snowden is?” That’s the hundred-dollar question. He has made application to quite a few countries, but his Latin American friends might not have the level of safe haven he wishes for. Since he has been counseled by Putin, publicly, to stop harming* the Americans, owtte, it is clear UN refugee and HR charter status is the golden path to Iceland. It’s bullshit when you hear he must be on the soil of the country of choice in order to apply. Bobby Fischer was in Japan when he got status in Iceland.

    *Here it is. (see #2) UNCHR protocols must be satisfied. They have to court the UN. This is the reason for the legalisms.

  4. orionATL says:

    i can’t believe the extraordinary incompetence of this administration on the snowden issue. not only have they been caught spying on americans and the rest of the world in true totalitarian style,

    but they have the arrogance and insensitivity to repeatedly bully other nations over the whistleblower’s effort to find asylum, a clear human right as basic as any could be, and to very publicly block that effort worldwide.

    i am furious at this country’s intolerant and vindictive behavior toward snowden, and incredulous at its clumsy bullying behavior toward other nations, especially smaller nations.

    i don’t see how the obama administration can ever recover from this debacle they have created for themselves.

  5. orionATL says:

    i am not sure rational behavior plays any part in this debacle,

    but if it does, the only reason i can think of to “justify” the u.s.’s excesses in pursuit of snowden is their fear that he has gained access to information about nsa’s activities even more contemptible and damaging than those so far exposed.

    i’m betting on illicit use of nsa capability in american domestic political activities.

  6. scribe says:

    When all is said and done, the furore from this episode will spin out to be the rough equivalent of a sternly worded letter. The EU Parliament went back and forth about demanding Obama personally show up before them and answer questions. To the extent it got any further than talking, he blew it off (or will, assuming it even hits his radar). Of similar import was something that passed across the wires yesterday, in which some EU parliamentarians were demanding King Pinocchio give back his Nobel Peace Prize, or that it be revoked. Steam, blown off, going nowhere.

    Snowden has, in his solo effort, done the equivalent of the gemcutter finding the right cleavage plane and smacking it with his tool to split the gemstone perfectly. I don’t know whether he succeeded in breaking the stone cleanly, nor whether the pieces can be cut into something useful, nor even if he hit hard enough. But (mixing metaphors) what we are seeing is some crystallization of a world-wide anti-American attitude that will not go away for a long, long time. This began the minute Bush, Cheney and their minions went – by any civilized standard – berserk in their reaction to 9/11, pissing away the goodwill and sympathy the entire world felt for what had been a beloved city, New York, and a respected and liked country, the United States. In a sea of torture, war crimes of all sorts, extrajudicial killing (i.e., murder), imperial wars of choice and seizure, the ratification of criminal finance by the great and the persecution of innocent conduct and the poor, and the development of an all-encompassing surveillance system the likes of which the world has never known (intended, no doubt, to maintain the status quo and who is where in it), the Administration since then (given their behavior to date, Obama’s is no different from Bush’s) is rapidly making America into just the kind of pariah nation it had long criticized.

  7. Chris Kapilla says:

    What kills me about all this, is that the European poodles only remorse seems to be that Snowden wasn’t on board — but what if he had been, there was still no right or justification for re-routing the flight!

  8. Casual Observer says:

    I’m trying to figure out why this story is so damn interesting to me. I guess it is because the US is displaying such thuggish behavior. I dunno. By now you’ve seen the die presse story saying that Eacho was the one who called Austria screaming about Snowden–

    And here is this slimey DoS mouthpiece “not-talking” about the Morales diversion:

  9. joanneleon says:

    The Latin American countries have a lot of reasons to be “bitching” about the transcontinental stop and frisk of the first indigenous president of Bolivia, given the things we’ve done on that continent for decades.

    I was watching this as it happened, via two journalists in the airport VIP lounge in Vienna (as were a lot of others after the Guardian liveblog found them). Morales was putting a good face on the whole thing, but Austrian officials just ignored him for hours before Fischer got there, from what I understand based on the journalists’ “as it happened” reports. They even mentioned once that it was a shame that nobody has given him any kind of hospitality, that no Austrian officials were there except for one secret service type of guy. This went on for hours, while Spain refused to give him any clearance and told him he’d have to wait until some office opened in the morning, etc. They all totally dissed this guy while he sat in an airport lounge. His pilots were sleeping in chairs until finally later they offered them the use of the pilot’s lounge to get rest before completing a very long flight.

    I agree that there is still a lot of murkiness about whether or not the plane was searched. However, if Morales was scheming with the Austrians, he would have confirmed that they searched the plane but instead he said they didn’t, or that he did not give any permission for it to be searched. I still can’t figure out who searched the plane. I heard one thing that sounded credible — that an airport policeman walked through the plane.

    If Snowden was on the plane, yes, he could be in a number of different places. The plane stopped in Brazil for maintenance and fuel immediately after it crossed the Atlantic. It wasn’t a long stop. I made a point to follow the progress that evening, knowing it had left the Canary Islands around noon Eastern.

    Those observations about the disclosure of the bug in the Ecuadorian embassy are very interesting. I saw you tweet about that immediately after it happened and wondered what you were thinking. I didn’t even think about the fact that maybe our intel agencies were duped by something said in one of their bug microphones there. But if the embassy knew about the bug weeks before that, why would our intel agencies pay attention to anything said there? That doesn’t make any sense to me.

  10. Seattleite says:

    I’ve never heard the term “truth deficit” but it seems most appropriate these days.

  11. joanneleon says:

    One thing that this does show for sure is that Emperors Alexander and Brennan don’t have much faith in their intelligence from Russia.

  12. emptywheel says:

    @joanneleon: If the Ecuardoans found the bug, but left it in place w/o alerting us that they had found it, then they’d be able to stage certain conversations in that room for the benefit of us.

    IIRC they said Snowden’s letter to Correa was leaked to the US that way. That may have been an intentional leak (one that would have become public in any case), as a way to set up this disinformation.

    I originally thought it might be a way to focus the attention on Morales’ plane so as to draw attention away from Maduro’s plane.

  13. Philip Munger says:

    Then yesterday the heads of state from 5 other South American countries gathered in Cochabamba, Bolivia (why not La Paz?)

    Cochabamba is:

    1) The future seat of UNASUR’s parliament, when it comes about.

    2) The place where the pushback against US corporate interests and urban political corruption in Bolivia came to a head in 1999 and 2000, as people won their struggle against the privatization of water rights.

  14. C says:

    @orionATL: While I don’t think most of the actions being taken are being done on his direct order, this certainly seems like low-level panic, the fact is that Obama personalizes things. Look at his tone-deaf vindictiveenss qhen it came to Al Awlaki. He went out of his way to build up and then assassinate an American Citizen abroad (a clear violation of existing laws) and then continues to act surprised by the consequences.

    The bottom line is I don’t think that he or any of his advisors think long term. As to them pulling themselves out, my question is how do we do it?

  15. orionATL says:

    if the u.s. does get its talons on snowden we may never be told that fact.

    snowden may simply be hidden away forever in some military jail.

    it seems likely that snowden will be tortured in the way bradley manning and jose padilla were tortured using psychological torture techniques such as sensory and sleep deprivation.

    i think it is reasonable to expect that snowden will be injected with drugs both to “enhance” interrogation and to damage his mental capacities thus depriving him of the capacity to articulate a defense of his actions.

    (how u.s. interrogators destroyed the mind of jose padilla)

  16. TarheelDem says:

    The Transparency Administration has exposed a reality that we should have known. The United States has been occupying the European Union countries for 68 years. The knee-jerk conditions on overflight of a head-of-state shows what good little puppets we have there.

    Maybe it’s time to end the US occupation of Europe.

  17. joanneleon says:

    @emptywheel: That would make a lot of sense to leak information about him being on one plane while putting him on another. Morales’ plane didn’t even fly out of Moscow (not that someone could not have transported Snowden to another airport).

    Snowden submitted more requests for asylum, so if he did get away, he’s still covering it.

  18. yellowsnapdragon says:

    If there was a campaign of disinformation from the Embassy of Ecuador in London aimed at USG, here is an interesting article from June 14 that may have been an early indication that USG was listening.

    Why would Snowden consider traveling to Britain considering what had happened to Assange, and why would Britain deny entry if Snowden could be arrested on arrival?

  19. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The US got its intel wrong? How surprising. So what are we spending those tens of billions of dollars every year on, besides creating an economic snowball-making machine that will permanently enrich contractors and deliver up whatever “intelligence” politicos want?

  20. beowulf says:

    @Ben Franklin:
    “it is clear UN refugee and HR charter status is the golden path to Iceland.”

    Which leads to the diamond superhighway to a Federal Correctional Institution. Venezuala is a far superior option to Iceland for Snowden (though Russia, of course, is the safest bet).

    Its not that Iceland is totally defenseless, only that it outsources its own defense to the US military. In practical terms, asylum from Iceland is only marginally stronger than a asylum from a high school student government.

    “The Iceland Defense Force (IDF) was a military command of the United States armed forces from 1951 to 2006. The IDF, created at the request of NATO, came into existence when the United States signed an agreement to provide for the defense of Iceland, which did not, and does not, have its own unified defense force.”

  21. x174 says:

    i like the idea of the “known” bug as a source for disinformation.

    i have little sympathy for the US government b/c they brought it all upon themselves by

    1) stealing the private information from the world’s people in the first place,
    2) outsourcing sensitive national secrets to the likes of Booz,
    3) perfecting their unique style of international buffoonery,
    4) displaying unsightly transcontinental thuggery,
    5) articulating outlandishly lawless and hypocritical lectures to the world, and
    6) engaging in perpetual global criminal enterprise

    it would be nice if they really were subjected to misinformation and outwitted by Bolivia

    i think it’s time to start dismantling the Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, UT (pop. ~8000)

  22. FrankProbst says:

    @beowulf Iceland was treated better by the Russians than they were by the EU or the US when their banks collapsed. I don’t think they see the Russians as the existential threat that either the US or any eastern European country would. I don’t think they’re really interested in getting involved in this, but if Snowden made it to Icelandic soil, I don’t think that he would immediately be handed over.

  23. FrankProbst says:

    I initially thought–like most other people, I suspect–the Snowden hadn’t really thought things out when he publicly revealed his identity and then (supposedly) fled to Moscow. I’m beginning to wonder if maybe he was WAY ahead of the game and has long since been in a country with which we have no extradition treaty. Putin appears to be enjoying this whole situation so much that I don’t think he’s really taking it seriously (i.e., he knows Snowden isn’t in Russia, and when this finally comes out, he can just sheepishly say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I read it in all of the American newspapers and assumed it must be true.”). Greenwald lives in Brazil, doesn’t he? Wouldn’t that be a good place for Snowden to hole up in?

  24. Phoenix Woman says:

    @Ben Franklin:

    This is why I tend to think he’s still in Russia. Iceland’s new conservative government, which is dealing with a country whose economy is in the toilet and needs all the help it can get, doesn’t want to anger the US right now the way they did with Fischer back in 2005 when their economy was still flying high from the bubble.

    It’s not that the US doesn’t know where Snowden is. It’s that the US is systematically sealing off, one by one, Snowden’s every potential legal exit from Russia that doesn’t involve handing him over to US Embassy personnel.

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