National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is vowing to create more headaches for President Obama after emerging Friday to request temporary asylum in Russia.
After a three-week stay in the transit zone of a Moscow airport, Snowden made a public appearance on Friday at a meeting with human rights groups. Snowden said in a statement that he would once again request asylum in Russia so he could secure legal travel to the Latin American countries that would take him in.
Snowden’s latest request could threaten to further chill the icy U.S.-Russia relations should Moscow — which has said it is neutral in the Snowden affair — grant asylum to the 30-year-old defense contractor.
Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone Friday in a previously scheduled call, according to the White House, giving Obama a chance to personally lobby Putin over Snowden. The White House said the two discussed Snowden, as well as counterterrorism cooperation in the lead-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Before the call, the White House blasted Russian officials for providing Snowden a “propaganda platform” that allowed him to consult with human rights officials in a highly publicized meeting.
“Providing a propaganda platform for Mr. Snowden runs counter to the Russian government's previous declarations of Russia's neutrality and ... that they have no control over his presence in the airport,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “It's also incompatible with Russian assurances that they do not want Mr. Snowden to further damage U.S. interests.”
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The row over Snowden is occurring amid serious policy disputes between Washington and Moscow over Syria and other issues.
But even if the Russians give Snowden asylum, the U.S. is not likely to let it seep into other aspects of U.S-Russian policy despite the warnings of repercussions, said Michael Rubin, a defense analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
“For better or worse, I think American officials will compartmentalize and put the Snowden irritant off to one side,” Rubin said.
Putin had said previously said that he would grant Snowden asylum — on the condition that he “must cease his work aimed at inflicting damage on our American partners" — and Russian officials said Friday that his comments still stand.
Snowden hinted Friday that he would continue to be a thorn in the side of the Obama administration if he has the opportunity to leave the Moscow airport freely — and get a platform to speak.
Snowden said that he intended to travel to each of the Latin American countries that offered him asylum “to extend my personal thanks to their people and leaders.”
He also labeled them human rights protectors in comments sure to rankle U.S. officials.
“These nations, including Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador have my gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless,” Snowden said at the Friday meeting, according to a transcript posted by Wikileaks.
Mike Breen, executive director of the Truman National Security Project, said the Latin American countries were essentially following the lead of Russia and China by thumbing their noses at the U.S.
“At this point the guy is a political football to be exploited by people playing by the oldest rule in international politics: One of the fastest ways to gain stature as an international player is to take down by a few notches the most powerful player,” Breen said. “They’re not going to take any real risks.”
The Obama administration has been exerting pressure on countries across the globe to get Snowden into custody.
The New York Times reported that State Department officials and diplomats have been warning Latin American countries of lasting consequences to U.S. relations if they accept him. Nevertheless, Vennezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador have all offered Snowden asylum.
On Thursday, Obama told Chinese officials during trade discussions at the White House that he was disappointed they allowed Snowden to flee Hong Kong and fly to Moscow.
The U.S. has also tapped its allies to help prevent Snowden from flying to Latin America. The Bolivian president’s plane was denied access to several European countries’ airspace last week when Snowden was rumored to be on board, and Snowden said Friday that it’s currently “impossible” for him to travel to Latin America because of the interference.
While Snowden’s quest to reach Latin America was generating international headlines, many don’t expect his flight to have long-lasting impacts on U.S. foreign policy.
“For all the heat and light around this right now, the idea that in two years the status of Snowden is going to be some kind of major international issue or something the U.S. is going to push hard about seems a little far-fetched,” Breen said.
“It’s not a positive step for anybody to grant asylum in terms of relationships with the U.S., but their relationships with the U.S. are already somewhat strained,” he added. “And to think it’s going to be straw that breaks camel’s back — I tend to doubt it.”
Rubin said that Snowden wasn’t helping his case either by running into the arms of dictators and praising their records on human rights, however.
“Obama can sit back and let Snowden destroy himself,” Rubin said. “It’s hard to be a free speech martyr while embracing dictators who punish free speech.”
This story was updated at 6:19 p.m.