Edward Snowden knew he was about to create a problem for himself. Leaking NSA secrets about its panoramic surveillance would make him a prime target of the U.S. government.
He chose to hole up in Hong Kong, but could he have done better? Michael Ratner, who represents Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, a man who similarly worries the U.S. would like to see him behind bars, said that there is no easy option for somebody looking to evade the long arm of the U.S.
"Close allies of the U.S. that share intelligence are not the best places to go. Countries the U.S. can bat around are not good either. You're getting down to a small number of countries," Ratner told HuffPost Monday. "In the end, [avoiding] extradition comes down to the executive. ... an executive that'll be favorable."
A top Russian official said Tuesday that his country would consider an asylum application from Snowden. Ratner said, however, that he would advise a client to look toward Latin America.
"Latin America in the last decade has cut itself from out from under the total U.S. hegemony," he said, noting that Ecuador has stood up to U.S. pressure and granted asylum to his client Assange, who also suggested Latin America.
But, Ratner cautioned, the country's populist administration could be ousted by one favorable to the U.S., which leaves little security for somebody seeking to avoid extradition. The same problem exists with Venezuela. More stability, he said, might be found in Cuba, which doesn't hold real elections. But a pro-U.S. coup or the death of Raul Castro could quickly make the island nation less hospitable. More importantly for Snowden, perhaps, is that fleeing to Cuba would feed those charging him with treason: it can't plausibly be called a bastion of free speech.
"An extradition treaty will go part of the way to protect you," he said, noting that many have exceptions for political crimes. "Espionage is a classic political crime, and many countries will not extradite you for political crimes. The U.S. has been trying to use computer fraud and abuse charges to get around that, but a good executive would say that's part of the statute."
Along with legal extradition, said Ratner, those on the run also need to worry about getting snatched by U.S. security forces outside the legal system, as happened to people in Macedonia and Italy. "I would put it right up there with the risk of extradition. The chance of a snatch doesn't seem to be low here at all," he said. Hong Kong's connection to China gives Snowden some assurance he won't be simply swept up. "I don't think they're going to snatch out of China, but nothing surprises me anymore," Ratner added.
Ultimately, he said, having broad backing is key. "You have to have somebody who's going to stand up to the U.S., which has a variety of means of flexing its power, economic, political and military," he said. "Having public support is crucial."
Today, there are roughly 75 countries with no formal extradition treaty with the U.S, though extradition is still possible without the existence of a treaty. While it is clear that some countries have less stringent policies for American fugitives than others, most countries in the developed world have agreed to return fugitives to the U.S. Here are eight countries that could be a safe haven for Snowden.