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Carl Hiaasen: Snowden savors the taste of liberty in Russia

  • Miami Herald
  • Published Tuesday, August 6, 2013, at 12 a.m.

An absolutely true news item: After spending a month confined inside a Moscow airport, former U.S. intelligence contractor and National Security Agency leaker Edward J. Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.

Sweet freedom, at last!

I thought I’d never get out of that crummy terminal. After a month of gagging on Cinnabon fumes, even this sooty Moscow air smells like daisies.

Today I walk the streets a free man, accompanied by my two new best friends, Anatoly and Boris. They do not work for the KGB, OK? They’re professional tour guides who came strongly recommended by President Vladimir Putin.

By the way, Vlad (that’s what he told me to call him) has been a totally righteous dude about this whole fugitive-spy thing, unlike a certain uncool American president, who keeps trying to have me arrested and prosecuted for espionage.

The Russians have generously given me a Wi-Fi chip and free Internet, so I can go online anytime I want and see what the world is saying about me. A recurring theme in many blogs and chat rooms seems to be: What was that kid thinking?

First of all, I believe with all my heart that Americans have the right to know about the far-reaching surveillance tactics employed by our government to monitor its own citizens. I also believe I’ve restarted an important debate about national security and privacy.

Could I have handled this whole thing differently? Sure. In retrospect, there’s definitely something to be said for anonymity.

But, hey, cut me some slack. I’m only 29 and this was my first time leaking classified intelligence data.

I’ll be the first to admit that my plan wasn’t 100 percent seamless. For example, I should have figured out what new place I wanted to live in before I revealed my identity as the leaker. Clearly, I underestimated how difficult it would be to find a country that would welcome me, especially a country as free and open as the United States.

“I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” I declared in a video interview.

This was weeks after I’d left my place in Hawaii and flown to Hong Kong to meet secretly with reporters. The hotel was nice, but after the stories broke I couldn’t go out anywhere.

How do you like your accommodations, Mr. Snowden? Can we bring you another pitcher of green tea? More noodles, perhaps?

I found another place to crash in Hong Kong and gave a new interview revealing that the NSA had hacked government computers in China. I assumed that in gratitude for receiving this heavy-duty info, the Chinese authorities would let me stay as long as I wanted. Wrong.

No problem, Eddie Boy, says some WikiLeaks dude. We’ll get you into Cuba.

Now I was seriously jazzed because Cuba’s supposed to be a lot like Hawaii – sunshine, great beaches, good surf, a chill music scene.

First connection (or so I thought) was at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. There I scored a ticket to Havana on Aeroflot (which is sort of the Russian version of Jet Blue, minus the TVs in the seat backs), and I’m ready to roll. Load up my iTunes with the Buena Vista Social Club but then….

More bad news. Apparently the Cuban regime wasn’t super excited about me moving there. I never really got the whole story. The plane left without me is all I know.

So I was stuck in the Moscow airport’s “transit” area, feeling not-so-great about how this whistle-blower stuff is playing out. The security guys wouldn’t even let me into the main terminal to hit a Starbucks and check out the Sharper Image.

Meanwhile, President Obama kept bugging the Kremlin to hand me over. Putin basically flipped him off, which bought me some time to scout other destinations that had fewer ice storms.

The Bolivian government has offered me asylum, but I’ve been thinking about what happened down there to Butch Cassidy and Sundance. I might take a pass.

Venezuela also said I could come down, and maybe that’s where I’ll end up in a few months. At least it’s warm there. Ecuador sounds pretty sweet, too.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the Russian people. Anatoly always insists on carrying my laptop for me, and Boris gave me a cellphone with unlimited minutes.

The coverage here is so amazing that somebody usually answers even before I finish dialing!

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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