Global Politics

Journalists tell story of chasing Edward Snowden around Russian airport

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Sheremetyevo Airport (Photo Courtesy of Flickr user ePi.Longo)

We reached out to Moscow correspondents Andrew Roth of The New York Times, Miriam Elder of The Guardian, and Lidia Kelly of Reuters. Together, they offer an instant oral history of "chasing Snowden."

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The Airport

Lidia Kelly: The transit area comprises three terminals that are connected together."

Andrew Roth: "Two of them are like what you would think of in a modern airport. Really nice, airy."

Miriam Elder: "There's a Burger King. There's a TGI Fridays."

LK: "At some point there was this radio Montecarlo — this disco-like music at six o'clock in the morning."

ME: "They were playing a song from the new Daft Punk album, which is cool."

Terminal F

And then there's Terminal F.

ME: "It's really grim. It's part of the airport that hasn't really been renovated since the Soviet times."

AR: "It looks like it's made of a dark or black granite. It's cavernous. There's a lot of doors."

LK: "There's lots of little corridors. Lots of little rooms."

ME: "There's definitely the feeling that's there's lots of secret tunnels."

AR: "The whole thing is two kilometers end to end."

LK: "You could just spend the whole night walking back and forth. Let me tell you, sometimes walking back and forth is what keeps you from falling asleep at 4 or 5 a.m."

Paranoia

But the journalists had no idea where Snowden may be.

ME: "It was impossible to know where to be, walking from one terminal to another terminal, to another terminal."

LK: "Most of all, you keep scanning people."

AR: "That's really how you pass the time is scouring and searching the airport in a way that you've never really looked around an airport before."

LK: "I thought that I had a good understanding of what Edward Snowden looked like, but when you're tired at 5 a.m., and you haven't slept for many hours, you suddenly realize that Edward Snowden looks like an ordinary man and a lot of men have the same type of glasses, the same type of face."

AR: "The way you felt from the beginning was anxious that he would walk by you. You always think, one more patrol, one more time when I walk around the corner, he'll be there."

ME: "The second day for example, I had plans to leave around 8 p.m. Every time I kinda took steps towards the exit, I just had this feeling 'Oh no. The second I leave he is going to show up at Burger King."

AR: "Burger King was in the geographical center of the three terminals."

ME: "We took everything as a sign that Snowden could be there. So at one point a woman walked by with a tray and on this tray there were three plates of food an we were convinced that it was for Snowden, for his traveling companion, and maybe for, you know, an FSB monger or something like that."

The FSB is the Russian state security service.

Close Encounters

All the searching led the journalists to view everything as the possible big break.

AR: "I was walking down a hallway and a police officer looks up and sees me and he turns around on his heels and starts walking the other way. He walks into this small room and he closes the door behind him. And I realized that — I decided at that moment that — that was the room where Edward Snowden was being held. I was sure. We walked back down the hallway and we basically opened the door, one person looked in and said 'Oh, I'm so sorry we didn't mean to.' And it was just a room with one police officer standing there.

LK: "There was a particular moment the first night. There was a young-looking man coming into the capsule hotel with a woman. It was about 3 a.m. in the morning and I was like 'Excuse me. What is your name? Isn't it Edward?' and he says 'No I'm Paul and I'm sick. And they took him to the capsule hotel and five minutes later the ambulance comes in and takes him away but he's all hooded and all covered and you kind of think 'Man did I just miss the man?'"

ME: "This guy walked by and he was kind of heavy and definitely in his sixties, maybe in his seventies and Lidia had been in the airport for so long at that point that she just kind of looks at him and was like 'Is that Julian Assange?' and that was just when we realized that a lot of us were losing it.

"You missed your plane 32 hours ago."

The journalists had to jump through hoops to simply get inside the transit area to conduct their search.

LK: "To get into the transit area, yes, you have to buy a ticket."

ME: "We just bought, you know, the cheapest ticket to anywhere."

AR: "You'd say 'Well do you have a ticket to Kiev in the next half hour?' She says 'No but we have a ticket to Belgrade.' And you say 'That's great.'"

LK: "'And could I buy a round trip ticket to Havana for myself for tomorrow from Moscow,' and the woman looks at me and says, "Are you crazy? How are you getting back here from Belgrade?" and I'm like 'I have my ways.'"

ME: "You know you have to leave somehow, you have to leave through some kind of passport patrol."

AR: "You have to explain yourself when you tried to get out of the airport with having flown anywhere."

LK: "And you were there for 33 hours. You missed your plane 32 hours ago."

ME: "The woman who went to check my passport said 'Oh what happened? Why did you miss your flight? It was so long ago."

LK: "What kind of excuse am I going to give them?"

AR: "I told them I met a couple of friends and we started drinking, then just missed the flight to which they said, 'Were you looking for somebody?' We decided the gig was up. We said, 'Yes, we were looking for somebody.' And he kind of smiled and he says, 'You won't find him, but I see him all the time,' and we could never really tell if it was a joke or if it was true that he had seen Snowden there, but we couldn't get any answers out of him."

ME: "Leaving the airport without having seen Snowden is frustrating, but with distance now its kind of understandable. The idea that he could have been just wandering around this airport just like a normal person is just kind of a ridiculous thing to have ever thought.

AR: "I think a lot of us hoped at one point that he would leave, basically, because searching the airport for him has been one of the futile processes."