Russia grants Snowden asylum

Russia has granted temporary asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, his lawyer announced on Thursday.

Snowden has been given permission to stay in Russia for one year and has already departed the Moscow airport, his lawyer said.

"I have just handed over to him papers from the Russian Immigration Service. They are what he needs to leave the transit zone," attorney Anatoly Kucherena said, according to Interfax, the Russian news organization. 

In a statement released to Wikileaks, Snowden thanked the Russian government. 

"I thank the Russian Federation for granting me asylum in accordance with its laws and international obligations," Snowden said in the statement.

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Kucherena told The Wall Street Journal that Snowden had already left Moscow airport, where he had been hiding since June 23 as he sought to evade a U.S. extradition order to face espionage charges.

"I already escorted him out of the airport into a taxi," Kucherena said, though he declined to reveal where Snowden was headed for security reasons.

The move is likely to further strain relations between Russia and the U.S., which has pressured Moscow to return Snowden, a former intelligence contractor who leaked classified information detailing secret phone and Internet surveillance programs.

President Obama personally raised the matter in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month, and senior administration officials had been pressing their Kremlin counterparts to not allow Snowden to leave the airport.

The White House has repeatedly indicated that Obama could skip planned one-on-one talks with Putin next month in Moscow ahead of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill blasted Putin's decision to grant asylum urged Obama to retaliate.

“Today’s action by the Russian government could not be more provocative and is a sign of Vladimir Putin’s clear lack of respect for President Obama,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.

“It is now time for Congress, hopefully in conjunction with the administration, to make it clear to the Russian government that this provocative step in granting Snowden asylum will be met with a firm response,” Graham said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Putin’s action should be met with "serious repercussions.”

“Russia’s action today is a disgrace and a deliberate effort to embarrass the United States. It is a slap in the face of all Americans," McCain said.

McCain said the Obama administration should work to expand human rights sanctions against Russia and consider finishing all phases of a missile defense shield in Europe.

Snowden initially fled to Hong Kong from Hawaii after disclosing the classified information and then traveled to Moscow. He has received asylum offers from a number of Latin American countries, but was unable to travel there without Russian permission after the U.S. revoked his passport.

His lawyer has suggested that he may intend to permanently settle in Russia.

Putin had said he was open to allowing Snowden temporary asylum, provided that he stopped leaking information damaging to the U.S.

Obama Administration officials had been attempting to sway their counterparts in Moscow.

Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder wrote a letter to Russian authorities assuring them Snowden would not face the death penalty or torture if he were returned to the United States.

"First, the United States would not seek the death penalty for Mr. Snowden should he return to the United States. The charges he faces do not carry that possibility, and the United States would not seek the death penalty even if Mr. Snowden were charged with additional, death penalty-eligible crimes," Holder wrote.

Secretary of State John Kerry also called Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week to reiterate “the belief of the United States, that Mr. Snowden needs to be returned to the United States, where he will have a fair trial; that Russia still has the ability to do the right thing," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Justin Sink contributed.

This story was first posted at 8:01 a.m. and has been updated.

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