Wednesday, December 11, 2013
McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Russia's confirmation Tuesday that fugitive contractor Edward Snowden is using the Moscow airport as a pit stop on his global search for a haven leaves American authorities seemingly powerless to stop him from traveling onward with top-secret files that detail extensive U.S. surveillance programs.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, left, shown at a ceremony in Moscow on Saturday, made it clear Tuesday that Russia won’t expel Edward Snowden, who as a transit passenger “is entitled to buy a ticket and fly to wherever he wants.”
Experts on U.S.-Russian relations said that Snowden's arrival in Moscow was a serious setback for the Obama administration's manhunt and a surprise gift for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who's shown a penchant for blocking U.S. interests on strategic issues.
Analysts added that they presume, despite Putin's denials, that Russia has copied Snowden's files, giving Putin not only invaluable insight into U.S. spy networks, but also a ready retort for the next time the U.S. accuses Russia of Internet restriction, cyber espionage or a checkered human rights record.
"It's hard for me to see that the U.S. has any leverage whatsoever here," said Keir Giles, a Russia specialist and director of the Conflict Studies Research Centre, a British security and defense think tank. "It plays into everything the Russians want to do, to embarrass, undermine and counteract American influence around the world. It's an absolute golden goose that's fallen into their laps."
'A GOOD DAY' FOR PUTIN
Putin, speaking to reporters Tuesday during a trip to Finland, said that his government was surprised by Snowden's arrival and stressed that Russian security agencies "have never worked with and are not working with" Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency who turned 30 on Friday.
Analysts were deeply skeptical of those claims, saying that at a minimum Chinese authorities had given their Russian counterparts a heads-up when Snowden left Hong Kong. They were equally adamant that there was no way Putin, a former intelligence agent, or his administration, which is stacked with former intelligence types, would pass up the chance to pore through top-secret U.S. documents.
"This guy is a hero to Mr. Putin. He has exposed our most advanced system of foreign and domestic surveillance," said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research institute. "To an intelligence officer like Putin, for something like this to come his way, it's, 'Wow, this is a good day.' "
Putin made it clear that Russia wasn't moving toward expelling Snowden, who as a transit passenger "is entitled to buy a ticket and fly to wherever he wants." He noted that there's no extradition treaty between the United States and Russia, making it impossible to return someone in Snowden's situation.
Ecuador tops the list of Snowden's most likely next stops -- the most speculated-upon escape route would be from Russia to Cuba, where he could then transfer to a plane bound for the Ecuadorean capital of Quito. While there were no official announcements from any party about Snowden's potential travel plans, it seemed that the Russians preferred that he leave soon rather than to linger and further strain U.S.-Russian relations over his presence.
"Snowden is a free person," Putin said. "The sooner he chooses his final destination, the better it is for him and Russia."
Secretary of State John Kerry issued a call for calm, saying he didn't want to raise tensions over the issue. U.S. officials continued to work through diplomatic and law enforcement channels, arguing that even without an extradition treaty Moscow could deport Snowden based on his revoked U.S. passport and the serious felony charges that await him in the U.S.
The State Department reminded Moscow that the U.S. had returned "many hundreds" of suspected criminals to Russia, and that the two governments had worked closely in the Boston Marathon bombing investigation. However, for a second day officials declined to discuss possible consequences should the Russians refuse assistance.
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