Editor’s note: AP journalist Ian Phillips flew from his home base of Prague in the Czech Republic to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport with the goal of getting to the bottom of the mystery of America’s most wanted fugitive: NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Here is his account of a surreal 21 hours.
SHEREMETYEVO AIRPORT — “An interesting route, Mr. Phillips,” says the airport transit desk employee. “This activity makes for suspicion.”
It was the start of an Orwellian adventure in which I deliberately got myself sequestered in the hopes of finding Edward Snowden at Moscow’s main airport.
The experience leaves me feeling that if the NSA leaker is indeed in the transit zone of the airport, as President Vladimir Putin claims, he may already have a taste of what it’s like to be in prison.
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Snowden is possibly holed up in the wing of an airport hotel reserved for travelers in transit who don’t have visas to enter Russia. The Novotel’s main building, located outside the airport, has a plush lobby with a fountain, a trendy bar and luxury shops. One wing, however, lies within the airport’s transit zone — a kind of international limbo that is not officially Russian territory.
And that’s where Snowden, whose U.S. passport has been revoked, may be hiding.
The woman at the transit desk raises an eyebrow and stares at my flight itinerary, which includes a 21-hour layover in Moscow before a connection to Ukraine. “Why would ANYONE stay here in transit for so long? There are so many earlier connections you could have taken. This is strange behavior.”
After a nearly two-hour wait inside the terminal, a bus picks me up — only me — from the transit area. We drive slowly across the tarmac, through a barrier, past electronic gates covered in barbed wire and security cameras.
The main part of the Novotel is out of bounds. My allotted wing feels like a lockup: You are obliged to stay in your room, except for brief walks along the corridor. Three cameras track your movements along the hallway and beam the images back to a multiscreen monitor. It’s comforting to see a sign instructing me that, in case of an emergency, the locks on heavily-fortified doors leading to the elevators will open.
When I try to leave my room, the guard outside springs to his feet. I ask him why room service isn’t responding and if there’s any other way to get food. He growls: “Extension 70!” I rile him by asking about the Wi-Fi, which isn’t working: “Extension 75!” he snarls.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Phillips,” the transit desk employee had said. “We have all your details and information. We will come and get you from your room at 6 p.m. on Friday, one hour before your connecting flight.”
Now it’s midnight, and I’m getting edgy. I feel trapped inside my airless room, whose double windows are tightly sealed. And the room is extortionate: It costs $300 a night, with a surcharge of 50 percent slapped on because I will be staying past noon.
(“Can’t I just wait in the lobby after midday?” I asked the receptionist at check-in. “Of course not,” she retorted. “You have no visa. You will stay until you are picked up.”)
I look out the window. If Snowden is here and has the same view, he can see the approach to the departures terminal at the airport. A large billboard shows a red 4×4 vehicle driving along an ocean road. A parking lot below is filled with vehicles. A man in green overalls is watering a patch of parched grass. Vehicles whiz in and out of the airport.
A maid has just brought a tea bag. She puts a tick against the room number on the three-page document on her trolley. On it, there are no guest names, only numbers — and departure dates. A quick look suggests there are perhaps a few dozen people staying here. A couple of rooms on my floor have telltale signs of occupancy — food trays lying outside from the night before.
But no sign of Snowden.
The guard allows me to stretch my legs in the corridor. The signs on the wall rub things in. Under a pretty picture of the Moscow skyline and Red Square, a message reads: “Should you wish to see the full range of facilities offered by our hotel during your next stay, we strongly recommend you to get a visa before flying to Moscow.”
Rules, rules, rules
A fleeting glimpse of a possible change of scene: a set of guidelines posted on the wall say I can go out for a smoke!
Rule No. 6: “It is possible to go and smoke one time per hour for 5 minutes in the beginning of each hour escorted by security service.”
I don’t smoke, but this would be a way to escape this floor. But when I ask him to take me down, the security guard scoffs. “No!” he says flatly.
I call the front desk. “You need a visa to go outside and smoke, Mr. Phillips” the receptionist says.
If he’s here, Snowden has access to a few international TV stations. He also has a fair amount of options with room service — the only source of food in this wing. But after almost a week, he might be getting bored. And he’d need a credit card or a lot of Russian cash. A selection:
Buffalo mozzarella and pesto dressing starter? 720 roubles (about $20).
Rib-eye steak: 1,500 roubles (about $50).
Bottle of Brunello di Montalcino red wine: 5,280 roubles ($165).
A miniature bottle of Hennessy XO cognac: 2,420 roubles ($80).
I’ve called all the 37 rooms on my floor in hopes of reaching Snowden. No reply except for when I got my security guard.
The floor above? A similarly futile attempt.
I only reached a handful of tired and irritated Russians who growled “Da? Da? Da?” — “Yes? Yes? Yes?”