By Alexander Bolton - 06/23/13 07:12 PM EDT
Edward Snowden’s flight from Hong Kong to Moscow and plans to seek political asylum in a third country have hurt his chances of avoiding prison, lawmakers said Sunday.
Snowden’s defenders acknowledge he broke the law by leaking classified information about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs but argue he should be protected as a whistleblower.
“I don't think this man is a whistleblower,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“Whatever his motives are — and I take him at face value — he could have stayed and faced the music. I don't think running is a noble thought,” she said.
Russian officials whisked Snowden off to an undisclosed location shortly after his flight from Hong Kong landed in Moscow on Sunday.
The 30-year-old former employee of Booz Allen Hamilton fled from Hong Kong after federal prosecutors charged him with several counts of espionage and theft and made a request to authorities in Hong Kong for his extradition.
Media reports speculated that Snowden could be heading next to Cuba, Venezuela or Ecuador, three countries with strained relations with the United States.
Feinstein said Snowden’s international itinerary has been abetted by a third party and suggested it could be WikiLeaks, the group that collaborated with Pfc. Bradley Manning to leak thousands of diplomatic cables and other classified information. She said he is rumored to be traveling with a companion.
Wikileaks on Sunday said they had provided Snowden with legal advisers and that he had left Hong Kong “legally.”
Feinstein expressed concern that he could be carrying a trove of classified material as he meets with foreign agents.
“We need to know exactly what he has. He could have a lot, lot more. It may really put people in jeopardy,” she told CBS. “The only thing I’ve learned is that he could have over 200 separate items.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said U.S. officials should use “every legal avenue” to bring Snowden back to the country to face charges.
Rogers undercut Snowden’s argument that he is a conscientious whistleblower by noting reports that he could leave Russia for other countries with contentious relations with the United States.
"When you look at it, every one of those nations is hostile to the U.S. If you could go to North Korea and Iran, he could round out his government oppression tour," he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press”.
Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), the senior ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, conceded it could be difficult to extradite Snowden if he escapes to Venezuela.
“I guess we'll go through the normal procedures that we go through to try to extradite someone. Our relations there, obviously, are not good, although better with this most recent election,” he told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Corker said Snowden has little ground to argue that he is a whistleblower.
“I don't know how anybody can view this person as anything other than a criminal. Again, if he feels differently, I hope he'll be back in our nation at some point to argue otherwise,” he said.
Ecuador is another potential destination for Snowden.
Ecuador’s foreign minister tweeted that his country had received a request for political asylum.
Snowden’s flight from Hong Kong to Russia is likely to undermine relations with China and Russia.
Feinstein said she thought China would take the U.S. extradition request as a chance to improve relations. While Hong Kong is nominally independent from China, lawmakers say it does little without acquiescence from its powerful neighbor.
Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the third-ranking Senate Democratic leader, warned that Russia could face serious consequences if it harbored Snowden. If Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin offered him asylum, it could impact negotiations to reduce nuclear arsenals, Schumer said.
“What's infuriating here is Prime Minister Putin of Russia aiding and abetting Snowden's escape,” Schumer told CNN’s “State of the Union” in an interview. “It's very, very likely that we are asking Russia to hold him.
“Whether Russia does that or not, I don't know. But the fact that they were allowing him to land indicates we're not in a phase of cooperation pretty much for sure,” he added.
A spokesman for Putin told The New York Times that the Russian president had not been previously informed of Snowden’s travel plans.
Schumer rejected comparisons between Snowden and famous crusaders for human rights and civil liberties such as Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mahatma Gandhi.
“So I don't think Snowden in any way can be compared to those people and should not be made a good guy, hero, or anything like that by anybody,” he said.
Even lawmakers sympathetic to Snowden’s criticisms of NSA snooping on U.S. citizens said his flight to Russia would complicate his defense.
“If he cozies up to either the Russian government, the Chinese government, or any of these governments that are perceived still as enemies of ours, I think that that will be a real problem for him in history,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said on CNN’s “State of the Union”.
Paul, a critic of the broad collection of phone and Internet data, said it would be easier for Snowden to claim that he is an advocate for privacy if he sought refuge in an independent third country such as Iceland.