Putin rules out extradition for leak suspect in Russia airport

Putin rules out extradition for leak suspect in Russia airport

Television journalists give reports outside the Ecuador embassy in Moscow

Moscow:  President Vladimir Putin of Russia offered the first direct confirmation on Tuesday that Edward J. Snowden, the fugitive US national security contractor, was in a transit area at a Moscow airport, and he appeared to rule out US requests for his extradition to the United States.

Speaking at a news conference while on an official visit to Finland, Putin offered no new information on where Snowden might be headed from the international transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport. But he said Snowden had broken no Russian laws and that Russian security officials had not made contact with him.

"The Russian special services are not engaged with him and will not be engaged," Putin said, according to the government-financed Russia Today news site.

Putin spoke hours after the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, chastised the United States for its demands regarding Snowden, who has been charged with violating US espionage laws for disclosing intelligence secrets. Lavrov said Snowden had not crossed the Russian border, which appeared to be a technical way of saying he was in an international passenger transit area. But Putin was far more direct.

US officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, lashed out with unusual force Monday against China for allowing Snowden to leave Hong Kong, against Russia for reportedly permitting him safe transit and against Ecuador for declaring that it is actively considering Snowden's request for political asylum. The Americans have demanded that he be seized and repatriated.

"He didn't cross the Russian border, and we consider the attempts we are seeing to accuse the Russian side of violating United States law as completely ungrounded and unacceptable, or nearly a conspiracy accompanied by threats against us," Lavrov said, speaking to reporters here after a meeting with the Algerian foreign minister.

He added, "There are no legal grounds for this kind of behavior from American officials toward us."

Later in the day Kerry, speaking to reporters while visiting Saudi Arabia, sought to tone down the angry exchange of words with his Russian counterpart, with whom he has sought to cultivate a good relationship.

"We are not looking for a confrontation," Kerry said.

The comments by Putin and Lavrov were the first by top Russian officials about Snowden since Snowden's reported arrival at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow on Sunday. Employees of Aeroflot, the Russian airline, said Snowden had been booked on an afternoon flight Monday to Havana, but he did not board and the aircraft left without him.

Ecuador confirmed that it had received an asylum request and had provided documents allowing Snowden to travel there. Snowden's US passport has been canceled.

Russian officials on Monday said that they had no information about Snowden, which seemed unlikely given that the Russian police took the unusual step of standing on the tarmac surrounding the plane that reportedly was supposed to take him to Cuba. Russian authorities also cordoned off the gate and had threatened to take telephones from journalists preparing to board the flight.

The sharp tone of comments by Kerry and other US officials was surprising, in part because there was no reason to believe that they could force Russia to cooperate and because it is highly unlikely that, if the roles were reversed, the United States would readily repatriate a Russian fugitive security official reportedly carrying computers filled with government secrets.

The United States and Russia, fierce rivals on intelligence matters dating to the Cold War, have long shown an ability to maintain their broader bilateral relationship in the face of occasional disputes over espionage incidents, including the arrest last month in Moscow of a US Embassy  employee accused of working as an operative for the CIA. But Lavrov's pointed remarks indicated that the diplomatic contretemps was taking a nasty turn.

On Monday, the United States accused Russia of ignoring the law in allowing Snowden to travel through the Moscow airport and sharply criticized Russia, China and Ecuador over their records on Internet freedom.

Lavrov said on Tuesday, "We have no connection with Mr. Snowden, nor with his relation toward the American justice system, nor with his movement around the world. He chose his own route and we, like most of those here, found out about this from the press."

The anti-secrecy organization, WikiLeaks, which says it has helped Snowden evade the US authorities, has said that he is safe and healthy but has declined to pinpoint his whereabouts.

US officials also openly mocked China and Russia on Monday as states that repress free speech and transparency and therefore are hardly apt refuges for someone fighting government secrecy in the United States.

"I wonder if Mr. Snowden chose China and Russia as assistants in his flight from justice because they're such powerful bastions of Internet freedom," Kerry said sarcastically during a stop in New Delhi.

President Barack Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney, said Snowden's chosen destinations indicated "his true motive throughout has been to injure the national security of the United States."

The strong words went beyond typical diplomatic language and underscored the growing ramifications of the case for the United States. The Obama administration's inability, at least for now, to influence China, Russia and countries in Latin America that may accept Snowden for asylum, like Ecuador, brought home the limits of US power around the world.

Ecuador's foreign minister, Ricardo Patino, criticized the United States on Monday for its pursuit of Snowden.

"The one who is denounced pursues the denouncer," Patino said at a news conference in Hanoi, Vietnam, a stop on a previously scheduled diplomatic visit to Asia. "The man who tries to provide light and transparency to issues that affect everyone is pursued by those who should be giving explanations about the denunciations that have been presented."

Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, wrote on his Twitter account, "We will analyze very responsibly the Snowden case and with absolute sovereignty will make the decision we consider the most appropriate."

The United States remains Ecuador's leading trading partner, but Washington's influence in Quito has been slight since Correa became president in 2007. He has repeatedly flouted and tweaked the United States, by, for example, stopping US anti-drug flights out of a military base in Manta, and expelling the US ambassador in 2011 after WikiLeaks cables suggested she felt Correa had tolerated police corruption.

A range of US officials, including the deputy secretary of state and the FBI director, spent Monday reaching out to their Russian counterparts seeking cooperation, without any apparent result.

US intelligence officials remained deeply concerned that Snowden could make public more documents disclosing details of the National Security Agency's collection system or that his documents could be obtained by foreign intelligence services, with or without his cooperation.

Technical experts have been carrying out a forensic analysis of the trail he left in NSA computer systems, trying to determine what he had access to as a systems administrator for Booz Allen Hamilton, a US government contractor, and what he may have downloaded, officials said.

The South China Morning Post reported Monday night on its website that in an interview, Snowden said he had specifically sought the job at Booz Allen so he could collect information about the NSA's secret surveillance programs to release to news outlets.

Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian, has said Snowden gave him thousands of documents, only a tiny fraction of which were published. Many may be of limited public interest, but they could be of great value to a foreign intelligence service, which could get a more complete idea of the security agency's technical abilities and how to evade its net, officials said. 

© 2013, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: June 25, 2013 23:47 IST

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