NSA leaker Edward Snowden was poised Wednesday to become a long-term irritant in U.S.-Russian relations after conflicting reports that he could be allowed to leave the Moscow airport.
Still, his lawyer's insistence that Snowden “intends to stay in Russia” — and reports that the Kremlin is considering his request — offer the strongest proof yet that the former defense contractor has nowhere else to go.
“I think it will be a process of us continually asking” to get him back, said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“It will become — I won't say a centerpiece — but an ever-present irritant in our relationship if he does end up getting asylum there.”
The Obama administration on Wednesday again warned the Kremlin of negative repercussions if Snowden isn't turned over to the United States to face espionage charges. Snowden has admitted to disclosing secret documents detailing the National Security Agency's phone and Internet surveillance programs.
He arrived at the Moscow airport more than a month ago from Hong Kong.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration was seeking “clarity” about any change in Snowden's “status.”
“Our position on Mr. Snowden remains what it was, which is that he is neither a human rights activist or a dissident,” Carney said. “Mr. Snowden should be expelled and returned to the United States.”
Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated that position in a phone call Wednesday with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
“He reiterated our belief, 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,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
“Any effort to help facilitate that, or for him to move out of the airport would certainly be disappointing. Our belief is the only place he should be moving is back to the United States.”
Snowden has applied for asylum to more than 20 countries, according to WikiLeaks, many of them leftist Latin American nations that oppose U.S. policies.
Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela have all offered him asylum, but Snowden may be trapped in Russia after the Obama administration urged U.S. allies to prevent him from letting him fly over their territories.
Earlier this month a plane carrying Bolivian President Evo Morales back from Moscow was forced to land in Austria and was searched amid rumors that Snowden was on board. The landing created an international diplomatic incident.
Since then, Snowden has appeared to resign himself to staying in Russia.
“He's planning to arrange his life here,” his Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told Russia Today on Wednesday. “He plans to get a job.”
Kucherena added that Snowden may seek to become a permanent Russian citizen rather than wait until another country offers him asylum.
Foreign policy experts aren't quite sure what to make of the apparent change in plans.
“Perhaps he likes the cold? Perhaps he couldn’t figure out how to get [to Latin America]?” said Danielle Pletka, vice-president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
“Perhaps he felt it was enough to see his country slapped in the face, and he wants nothing more. Who knows.”
Some lawmakers have called on President Obama to send Russia a stern message if it grants Snowden asylum, perhaps by boycotting a bilateral summit planned for September ahead of the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) went one step further, telling The Hill last week that the United States should boycott the Winter Olympics in Sochi as retaliation.
“It might help, because what they're doing is outrageous,” Graham said. “We certainly haven't reset our relationship with Russia in a positive way. At the end of the day, if they grant this guy asylum it's a breach of the rule of law as we know it and is a slap in the face to the United States.”
Others say the only way to get Snowden back is by keeping the channels of communication open with Russia.
Smith, who met with Soviet prisoners during the Cold War, said the Snowden issue likely won't be resolved for months or years.
“It needs to get played out,” Smith said. “Meeting with Putin makes it more likely he'll be amenable to a solution that we find acceptable.”
Snowden formally applied for asylum on July 16. The move has not endeared him to the U.S. government or the American public.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Wednesday showed 53 percent of Americans support charging Snowden with a crime. That's up 10 percentage points since last month.