MOSCOW — The United States appeared no closer Tuesday to getting back fugitive Edward Snowden, the former government contractor who remains in Russia while trying to win third-country political asylum and protection from a U.S. extradition request on espionage charges.
Snowden, indicted for leaking classified National Security Agency information, remains in the transit area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after fleeing Hong Kong on Sunday. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Snowden would not be handed over to the U.S. because the countries have no formal extradition treaty. Because Snowden is in a transit zone, he’s not technically in Russia, Putin said.
While working for government security contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden, 30, exposed the NSA’s massive, long-running Internet and telephone surveillance programs.
Russia and China — the latter of which also was unsympathetic to U.S. efforts to return Snowden after he fled from Hawaii to Hong Kong — have drawn sharp criticism from the Obama administration, further straining international relations.
China previously said it was concerned over Snowden’s allegations that the U.S. had hacked into many of the country’s Internet networks.
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said despite the lack of an extradition treaty, there is “clear legal basis to expel Mr. Snowden, based on the status of his travel documents and the pending charges against him.”
But Putin, while visiting Finland on Tuesday, said he would rather not intervene in the case and noted that trying to navigate a diplomatic resolution was problematic.
“I’d prefer not to deal with this issue at all. It’s like shearing a pig — too much squeaking, too little wool,” Putin said. The Russian president said Snowden was free to leave Russia. “The sooner he chooses his final destination, the better it will be for us and him,” Putin said.
Edward Snowden: The mystery deepens
Separately, a Chinese state newspaper praised Snowden for his decision to make public government surveillance programs, adding fresh pressure to increasingly strained U.S.-China relations. In a commentary, China’s People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, lauded Snowden for “tearing off Washington’s sanctimonious mask.”
“In a sense, the U.S. has gone from a model of human rights to an eavesdropper on personal privacy, the manipulator of the centralized power over the international Internet, and the mad invader of other countries’ networks,” the People’s Daily commentary said.
WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization that is financing Snowden’s international travel and search for asylum, maintained Tuesday that Snowden had not been debriefed by either Chinese or Russian intelligence authorities.
“That is still the case, as far as I know,” WikiLeaks spokesman Kristinn Hrafnsson said, adding that Russian officials have “made no request” to interview Snowden about his knowledge of secret U.S. surveillance programs.
Hrafnsson declined to discuss Snowden’s next move, though he said he was “fairly optimistic” that Ecuador would grant Snowden’s asylum request.
Kim Hjelmgaard reported from London; Zach Coleman from Hong Kong.
Contributing: Aamer Madhani in Washington