President Obama's trip to Sweden, announced shortly after the White House canceled bilateral talks with Russia for granting temporary asylum to National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden, was not motivated by that country's difficulty extraditing WikiLeaks head Julian Assange, White House press secretary Jay Carney insisted Thursday.
The White House spokesman said the administration had "been considering a trip for some time" and that it "made sense to couple the visit to Sweden with the G-20 summit," after announcing Wednesday that Obama was pulling out of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
"Sweden is a close friend and partner to the United States and plays a key leadership role on the international stage, including opening new trade and investment opportunities through the U.S.-E.U. trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership, advancing clean technologies and promoting environmental sustainability," he continued.
Assange, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, has been holed up in the London office of the Ecuadorian ambassador to the United Kingdom for almost a year after officials in Sweden filed an extradition request against him. Assange faces sexual assault charges in Sweden; he has not been charged there or in the U.S. over his decision to publish online thousands of top-secret government documents and diplomatic cables.
Assange has also been a vocal supporter of Snowden, who was charged in an American court after releasing details about top-secret NSA surveillance programs to journalists. Snowden initially fled to Hong Kong and then to Moscow, where he was granted temporary asylum after a nearly a month in the airport's economic zone.
In his first on-camera comments about the president's decision to pull out of the Moscow talks, Carney said "Snowden was a factor" in the decision to cancel the talks.
"When you have summits like these, you want the kind of progress prior to them to be sufficient enough to merit a meeting of the leaders," Carney said.
But while the White House press secretary said American authorities were still hopeful Russia would reverse course and return Snowden, he also emphasized that American diplomats "have a lot of issues to engage with the Russians over."
"We have a lot of fish to fry, if you will, with the Russians," Carney said, adding that "this is not the focus of our engagement with Russia, but it is not something that we're dropping by any means."