WASHINGTON — The U.S. grasped for help Monday from both adversaries and uneasy allies in an effort to catch fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. The White House demanded that he be denied asylum, blasted China for letting him go and urged Russia to “do the right thing” and send him back to America to face espionage charges.
Snowden was believed to be in Russia, where he fled Sunday after weeks of hiding out in Hong Kong following his disclosure of the broad scope of two highly classified counterterror surveillance programs to two newspapers. The programs collect vast amounts of Americans’ phone records and worldwide online data in the name of national security.
Snowden had flown from Hong Kong to Russia, and was expected to fly early Monday to Havana, from where he would continue on to Ecuador, where he has applied for asylum. But he didn’t get on that plane and his exact whereabouts were unclear.
The founder of WikiLeaks, the secret-spilling organization that has embraced Snowden, said the American was only passing through Russia on his way to an unnamed destination to avoid the reach of U.S. authorities. Julian Assange said Snowden had applied for asylum in Ecuador, Iceland and possibly other countries.
Despite its diplomatic tough talk, the U.S. faces considerable difficulty in securing cooperation on Snowden from nations with whom it has chilly relations.
The White House said Hong Kong’s refusal to detain Snowden had “unquestionably” hurt relations between the United States and China. While Hong Kong has a high degree of autonomy from the rest of China, experts said Beijing probably orchestrated Snowden’s exit in an effort to remove an irritant in Sino-U.S. relations. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping met earlier this month in California to smooth over rough patches in the countries’ relationship, including allegations of hacking into each other’s computer systems.
Secretary of State John Kerry urged Moscow to “do the right thing” amid high-level pressure on Russia to turn over Snowden.
“We’re following all the appropriate legal channels and working with various other countries to make sure that the rule of law is observed,” Obama told reporters when asked if he was confident that Russia would expel Snowden.
Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, said the U.S. was expecting the Russians “to look at the options available to them to expel Mr. Snowden back to the United States to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged.”
Carney was less measured about China.
“The Chinese have emphasized the importance of building mutual trust,” he said. “And we think that they have dealt that effort a serious setback. …This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant, and that decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship.”
Snowden has acknowledged revealing details of top-secret surveillance programs that sweep up millions of phone and Internet records daily. He is a former CIA employee who later was hired as a contractor through Booz Allen to be a computer systems analyst. In that job, he gained access to documents – many of which he has given to The Guardian and The Washington Post to expose what he contends are privacy violations by an authoritarian government.
Snowden also told the South China Morning Post that “the NSA does all kinds of things like hack Chinese cellphone companies to steal all of your SMS data,” and is believed to have more than 200 additional sensitive documents.
Assange and attorneys for WikiLeaks assailed the U.S. as “bullying” foreign nations into refusing asylum to Snowden. WikiLeaks counsel Michael Ratner said Snowden is protected as a whistleblower by the same international treaties that the U.S. has in the past used to criticize policies in China and African nations.
The U.S. government’s dual lines of diplomacy – harsh with China, hopeful with the Russians – came just days after Obama met separately with leaders of both countries in an effort to close gaps on some of the major disputes facing them. Additionally, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the U.S. has made demands to “a series of governments,” including Ecuador, that Snowden be barred from any international travel other than to be returned to the U.S.
Ventrell said he did not know if that included Iceland. Icelandic officials have confirmed receiving an informal request for asylum conveyed by WikiLeaks, which has strong links to the tiny North Atlantic nation. But authorities there have insisted that Snowden must be on Icelandic soil before making a formal request.
Ecuador’s president and foreign minister declared that national sovereignty and universal principles of human rights – not U.S. prodding – would govern any decision they might make on granting asylum to Snowden.
Ecuador has rejected some previous U.S. efforts at cooperation and has been helping Assange avoid prosecution by allowing him to stay at its embassy in London.
Formally, Snowden’s application for Ecuadoran asylum remains only under consideration. But Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino made little effort to disguise his government’s position. He told reporters in Hanoi that the choice Ecuador faced in hosting Snowden was “betraying the citizens of the world or betraying certain powerful elites in a specific country.”
President Rafael Correa said on Twitter that “we will take the decision that we feel most suitable, with absolute sovereignty.” Correa, who took office in 2007, is a frequent critic of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and is an ally of leftist president Evo Morales of Bolivia. Correa also had aligned himself with Venezuela’s late leader, Hugo Chavez, a chief U.S. antagonist in the region for years.
In April 2011 the Obama administration expelled the Ecuadorean ambassador to Washington after the U.S. envoy to Ecuador, Heather Hodges, was expelled for making corruption allegations about senior Ecuadorean police authorities in confidential documents disclosed by WikiLeaks.
American experts said the U.S. will have limited, if any, influence to persuade governments to turn over Snowden if he heads to Cuba or nations in South America that are seen as hostile to Washington.
“There’s little chance Ecuador would give him back” if that country agrees to take him, said James F. Jeffrey, a former ambassador and career diplomat.
Steve Saltzburg, a former senior Justice Department prosecutor, said it’s little surprise that China refused to hand over Snowden, and he predicted Russia won’t either.
“We’ve been talking the talk about how both these counties abuse people who try to express their First Amendment rights, so I think that neither country is going to be very inclined to help us very much,” said Saltzburg, now a law professor at George Washington University in Washington. “That would be true with Cuba if he ends up there.”
The United States formally sought Snowden’s extradition but was rebuffed by Hong Kong officials who said the U.S. request did not fully comply with their laws. The Justice Department rejected that claim, saying its request met all of the requirements of the extradition treaty between the U.S. and Hong Kong.
Snowden had been believed to have been in a transit area in Moscow’s airport where he would not be considered as entering Russian territory. Assange declined to discuss where Snowden was but said he was safe. The U.S. has revoked his passport.