(above) Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, speaking to reporters at an airport near Vienna. France and Portugal had blocked his plane. Credit: Helmut Fohringer/Agence France-Presse -- Getty Images
Barring of Bolivian Plane Infuriates Latin America as Snowden Case Widens
By WILLIAM NEUMAN and ALISON SMALE
CARACAS, Venezuela -- The geopolitical storm churned up by Edward J. Snowden, the fugitive American intelligence contractor, continued to spread on Wednesday as Latin American leaders roundly condemned the refusal to let Bolivia's president fly over several European nations, rallying to his side after Bolivian officials said the president's plane had been thwarted because of suspicions that Mr. Snowden was on board.
Calling it a grave offense to their entire region, Latin American officials said they would hold an emergency meeting of the Union of South American Nations on Thursday.
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina said the episode had "vestiges of a colonialism that we thought was completely overcome," describing it as a humiliating act that affected all of South America.
President Rafael Correa of Ecuador said in a post on Twitter that the situation was "extremely serious" and called it an "affront to all America," referring to Latin America.
The diplomatic and political tempest over Mr. Snowden and his revelations of far-reaching American espionage programs has swept up adversaries and allies from across the globe.
Tensions emerged right away between the United States and the two major powers Mr. Snowden has fled to, China and Russia, over their refusal to detain him and turn him over to the American authorities.
The discord soon spread to some of America's closest allies in Europe. After newspaper reports based on documents Mr. Showden compiled as a contractor for the National Security Agency showed that the United States had been spying on an array of embassies and diplomatic missions, including the European Union's offices in Washington, Brussels and New York, the outrage rattled prospects for a trans-Atlantic free-trade agreement.
The United States and Europe have emphasized the importance of the trade talks, saying they would create the world's largest free trade zone and stimulate growth. But on Wednesday, France said it would be wise for the talks to be suspended for two weeks to give Washington time to supply information about its spying program.
Hours later, José Manuel Barroso, the head of the union's governing commission, announced a compromise in which trade talks could start as planned, but only if the United States opened talks at the same time on its intelligence operations.
Seeking to keep the trade talks on track, President Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany later responded with an agreement that security officials from their countries would hold a "high-level meeting" in coming days, Ms. Merkel's spokesman said in a statement.
In a telephone call to President Obama on Wednesday evening, the chancellor noted that a visit to Washington by senior officials from the German government and its intelligence services offered the chance for an "intensive discussion" of concerns over the scope of American intelligence activities, data protection and privacy, the statement said.
But French officials, speaking to reporters, made it clear that they would still favor delaying trade talks if there was no movement from the Americans on the espionage by next week.
And now, the uproar has encompassed Latin America as well.
"In some sense, it parallels ironically what the N.S.A. is doing," said Faiza Patel, a co-director of the liberty and national security program of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, a research and advocacy organization. "The N.S.A. is reaching its tentacles aross the world."
Mr. Snowden and his disclosures have touched different chords in each region. In Europe, Ms. Patel noted, they have provoked memories of the police states created by fascism and communism, with their heavy-handed surveillance of their own people. In Latin America, she said, they have touched on a wellspring of resentment over the legacy of colonialism and American power, as well as the region's own history of secretive dictatorships.
The latest burst of outrage came in response to the diversion of a plane carrying Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, as he was flying home from Moscow on Tuesday. He had attended a meeting of nations that export natural gas and had told Russian television that he was open to giving asylum to Mr. Snowden.
Mr. Snowden has been holed up at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow for more than a week, hoping to receive a positive response to the asylum requests he has made to several countries, and Mr. Morales's remark may have set off suspicion that he was bringing the fugitive aboard.
After taking off from Moscow, Mr. Morales's plane sought permission to land in France to refuel, according to Carlos Romero, the minister of government in La Paz, Bolivia. But France refused and denied the plane permission to enter French airspace, Bolivian officials said. Portugal had previously refused to let the plane land for refueling in Lisbon.
Mr. Morales was given permission to land in Vienna, where he spent the night. Officials said that as a new flight plan was being drawn up, Italy also denied permission for Mr. Morales's plane to use its airspace. Bolivia's foreign minister, David Choquehuanca, said the refusals stemmed from "unfounded suspicions that Mr. Snowden was on the plane."
Karl-Heinz Grundböck, a spokesman for the Austrian Interior Ministry, said that the Austrian border authorities carried out a routine check of the passports of everyone aboard Mr. Morales's plane after it landed and that they were also granted permission to search the plane to ensure that Mr. Snowden was not aboard. "The rumors were just that," Mr. Grundböck said.
But in La Paz, officials said no search had taken place, contending that it would be improper to search the plane of a head of state. As for the forced diversion of the flight, the vice president of Bolivia, Álvaro García Linera, equated it to a kidnapping.
"Yesterday was one of the most shameful pages in the political history of some countries in Europe," Mr. García Linera said in La Paz on Wednesday.
French officials apologized on Wednesday, saying they had never meant to block Mr. Morales from their airspace and reversed the decision after learning that the Bolivian president was aboard.
"There was conflicting information about the passengers who were on board," said the French president, François Hollande. "When I knew it was the plane of the Bolivian president, I immediately gave permission for it to fly" over French territory, he said.
Some Latin American officials blamed the United States, insisting that the Obama administration had instructed its European allies to stop Mr. Morales's plane on the suspicion that it carried Mr. Snowden, who is wanted on charges of violating espionage laws for divulging secrets about American surveillance programs. The White House declined to comment on whether the American government had anything to do with the plane's diversion.
At the State Department, a spokeswoman, Jennifer Psaki, declined to say whether American authorities had asked other countries to deny airspace to the Bolivian plane. "I would point you to them to describe why they made decisions if they made decisions," Ms. Psaki told reporters.
After European nations eventually cleared Mr. Morales to fly, he took off from the Vienna airport about 11:30 a.m. local time on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the foreign minister of Ecuador, Ricardo Patiño, said on Wednesday in Quito that his government had discovered a hidden microphone in the office of its ambassador in London. The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, who has been acting as an adviser to Mr. Snowden, has been living in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for more than a year, given asylum there to escape extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning on sexual assault allegations.
Mr. Patiño, whose country is a possible asylum destination for Mr. Snowden, said that the device was linked to a private British security firm and that he was asking British authorities for help in finding out who was behind the bugging.
William Neuman reported from Caracas, and Alison Smale from Berlin. Reporting was contributed by Melissa Eddy from Berlin, Steven Erlanger from Paris, Rick Gladstone from New York, and Jackie Calmes and Peter Baker from Washington.