As the stand-off continues between Edward Snowden and the US what are the options open to Washington?
Snowden has been given temporary asylum and moved out of the transit area at Moscow airport after a six week stay. His exact presence is now unknown. There are no extradition arrangements between the two great powers, but that would not stop them entering into a one off for this purpose. There is no sign that is likely, although assurances have been given that Snowden would not be subject to the death penalty if returned. There is however a mutual legal assistance treaty in place dating back to 1999. The US could try to invoke this treaty but they will know its usual purpose is the interviewing of witnesses. It is bound to fail and such a move would smack of desperation and be humiliating for the Obama administration.
Could Washington try him in his absence? This route doesn’t appear open under the Federal criminal procedure rules. Snowden would not consent, it is more than a minor allegation and of course he did not absent himself after proceeding commenced; he was in Hong Kong when the world was notified of the indictment.
But there is good news for the US. They will know that Snowden faces an uncertain and restricted existence in Russia. One that has started off attractive for whistle blowers in the past and became less so as time moved on. Sooner or later the US will believe he will have to accept one of the offers from South America for apparent permanent safety and that will mean a difficult and uncertain journey. He will have no guarantees of complete protection from the long arm of the US. Air space may be closed and Washington may feel the risk of forcing a flight down and searching an airplane worthwhile; and they do have form for doing so in the past. And even if he gets to South America those countries do have extradition arrangements with the US. Although every one assumes the US would not succeed in any extradition attempt that is not completely certain.
For the moment it remains a stand-off, but the real issues is whether Russia and Snowden will hold their nerve; if either breaks the US will be ready to pounce.