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June 24, 2013

The Further Invisible Adventures of Edward Snowden

@maxseddon Max Seddon, AP Correspondent in Moscow: Standing next to Edward Snowden’s seat on flight to Cuba. He ain’t here.

Based on their presumably credible sources that Edward Snowden would be taking a flight from Moscow to Havana, en route to Ecuador, journalists scrambled to buy tickets and accompany him. But he wasn’t on board — his current whereabouts a mystery as of this writing  — and all the photographers on hand in multiple continents have yet to produce a single image of him anywhere since the story broke, other than the now iconic Laura Poitras film.

So as Snowden’s personal and political story takes greater and greater leaps into the farcical, the torturous and the unknown, the ironic visual narrative gets reduced further and further into obscurity. Max Seddon, who made the photograph of the empty seat above, followed up with two more tweets before the plane was up in the air beyond cellphone range:

“Cuba here we come. Taxiing down Sheremetevo runway and no sign of Snowden. Seats empty still by 17A”

and then in evident frustration, quoting from the movie Airplane!:

“‘Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit amphetamines’ comes to mind”

At Sheremetevo Airport, the world media had been showing photographs of Snowden to arriving passengers from the Hong Kong flight, hoping that somebody may have recognized or spoken to him. But they came up empty. Rarely has a story which has spun out so grandly into the public eye become simultaneously so hard to actually comprehend. So much so, that Miriam Elder of The Guardian wondered, “was he ever even really here?” In real time, it seems as if governments, activists, journalists, and perhaps Snowden himself cannot keep up with every twist and turn.

And as the action leaves Hong Kong (diplomatic contretemps with the US aside), it’s as if Snowden’s trace there, too, has evaporated as quickly as it appeared only two weeks ago. All that’s left is that face — the same photo as always — on a LED screen, replaced already a moment later by the next news item. And then, it’s silence and perhaps relief in Hong Kong and Beijing. As if nothing had hardly happened there.

From Hanoi, the Ecuadorean Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino held a press conference confirming that Snowden had requested asylum. From his refuge in Ecuador’s Embassy in London, Julian Assange held court, describing how Wikileaks is supporting Snowden with staff, legal help, and funds. The international scope of the drama has observers nail-bitingly riveted, frustrated by the meager and meta-diet of photos of the only photos, of otherwise unextraordinary empty seats and airplanes, of boring talking heads at press conferences.

But it’s Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas who point out in the Washington Post that the lurid aspects of Snowden’s invisible adventures actually detract from the importance of his disclosures, that covering his personal ordeal “has even neutralized journalistic resources that could’ve been devoted to the larger NSA stories (the poor reporters who got on the flight to Havana won’t be able to turn around for three days, for instance).” For the moment, there will only be more photographs of not much. The world waits, and wonders. And the brave words of Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) aside, it’s very much uncertain whether there will be any substantive change in how the NSA operates.

– Alan Chin

(photo 1: Max Seddon/AP via Twitter.  photo 2: James Hill for The New York Times. caption: On Sunday, a crowd of journalists greeted a passenger on the same Hong Kong flight Edward J. Snowden took to Moscow. photo 3: Vincent Yu/AP. caption: A TV screen shows a news report of Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked top-secret documents about sweeping U.S. surveillance programs, at a shopping mall in Hong Kong Sunday, June 23, 2013. The former National Security Agency contractor wanted by the United States for revealing two highly classified surveillance programs has been allowed to leave for a “third country” because a U.S. extradition request did not fully comply with Hong Kong law, the territory’s government said Sunday.)

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