NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden left Moscow’s international airport today for the first time six weeks and thanked Russia for granting him temporary asylum.
Anatoly Kucherena, a Russian lawyer advising Snowden on his bid for asylum in Russia, showed reporters a copy of the permit, saying it was valid for up to a year and renewable after that.
“I have just handed over to him papers from the Russian Immigration Service. They are what he needs to leave the transit zone,” Kucherena said, according to the Russian Interfax news agency.
Snowden released a statement through WikiLeaks, which has aided his bid to find asylum after releasing details of the National Security Agency’s vast data collection operation.
“Over the past eight weeks we have seen the Obama administration show no respect for international or domestic law, but in the end the law is winning. I thank the Russian Federation for granting me asylum in accordance with its laws and international obligations,” Snowden said.
The move was not applauded in Washington.
“We are extremely disappointed that the Russian government would take this step despite our very clear and lawful requests in public and in private to have Mr. Snowden expelled to the United States to face the charges against him,” White House press spokesman Jay Carney told reporters at the daily briefing.
“Mr. Snowden is not a whistle-blower. He is accused of leaking classified information and has been charged with three felony counts. And he should be returned to the United States as soon as possible, where he will be accorded full due process and protections,” he said.
The White House is now re-evaluating whether President Obama will attend a planned bilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow next month.
“I don’t have a scheduling announcement for you today, but obviously this is not a positive development. And we have a wide range of interests with the Russians, and we are evaluating the utility of a summit,” Carney said.
Kucherena said Snowden was tired from his month-long stay in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International airport.
The lawyer said Snowden was expected to stay in an undisclosed location, adding that the fugitive leaker feared for his safety. He reportedly left the airport in a taxi, accompanied by Sarah Harrison of the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks, who traveled with him to Moscow from Hong Kong.
The lawyer said he is preparing a visa application for Snowden’s father, who said in an interview with Russian state television this week that he would like to visit his son.
Snowden applied two weeks ago for temporary asylum in Russia.
Snowden had been stuck inside the transit zone of the airport since he arrived June 23. He could not enter Russia because he did not have a Russian visa and he could not travel to safe haven opportunities in Latin America because the United States had canceled his passport.
The decision by Russia to allow Snowden into the country comes at an awkward time, with Obama expected to attend a summit with Putin in early September. U.S. officials have warned that if Snowden were allowed to stay in Russia, Obama might pull out of the meeting.
Attorney General Eric Holder wrote a letter last week to Russian authorities urging them to turn Snowden over and assuring them he would not be tortured or face the death penalty.
Russia said in response this week that its position had not changed and it would not extradite Snowden.
Putin had previously said Snowden could stay in Russia, but only if he stopped “harming” the United States by releasing more classified information. In a meeting with human rights activists last month, Snowden said he believed he met that condition because he had already given away all his sensitive data.
In perhaps a sign of the difficult position Snowden has put him in, Putin later likened Snowden to an unwanted Christmas present.
A poll by the independent Levada Center taken earlier this month and released Wednesday found that 51 percent of Russians supported Snowden’s leaks and 43 percent approved of granting his asylum.