By Matt Smith and Josh Levs, CNN
(CNN) — The United States will keep to routine channels in its efforts to bring self-avowed NSA leaker Edward Snowden back for prosecution, President Barack Obama said Thursday.
“I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker,” he told reporters during a news conference in Senegal.
Meanwhile, Ecuador’s Political Affairs Secretary Bety Tola said officials had not yet “dealt with” Snowden’s request for asylum because he is not in the country. Officials also denied statements this week by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that Ecuador had given Snowden refugee documents to travel on after his U.S. passport was revoked.
The statements further muddy an already complicated set of scenarios involving Snowden, who apparently remained in a Moscow airport with Russian officials suggesting it’s time for him to move on.
Snowden, the former National Security Agency computer contractor who spilled details of U.S. surveillance programs to reporters, flew to Moscow from Hong Kong after American authorities sought his extradition on espionage charges. Russia says it has no interest in arresting him, but for a second day, a top Russian official questioned how long he will be hanging around Sheremetyevo International Airport.
“He did not violate any laws of the Russian Federation. He did not cross the border, stays in the transit zone of the airport and has a right to fly in any direction he thinks of,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the ITAR-TASS news agency Wednesday. “And as the president put it, the sooner it happens, the better.”
The United States has called on any country where Snowden may travel to turn him away. The 30-year-old is being aided by WikiLeaks, the international anti-secrecy group that facilitates the release of classified information.
Ecuador, the South American country where Snowden has sought refuge, has already hosted Assange for a year in its embassy in London.
The Ecuadorian government took a swipe at Washington on Wednesday, rejecting what it called “detrimental, untrue, and unproductive” claims the U.S. government has made about Ecuador. But it also invited Washington to weigh in on the request.
A response to Snowden’s asylum application could take as long as two months, the Ecuadorian foreign minister said Wednesday.
“The decision on asylum could resolve itself in one day, one week or, as with Assange, it could take two months,” Ricardo Patino wrote on his Twitter account.
Relations between the United States and Ecuador have been tense under the leftist administration of Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. The United States has criticized a new law in Ecuador it says will restrict press freedoms, and the countries expelled each others’ ambassadors in 2011 after WikiLeaks released U.S. diplomatic cables saying Ecuador’s government tolerated police corruption.
An Ecuadorian deputy foreign minister denied Wednesday previous reports that the nation had given Snowden documents to facilitate his travel.
“It is not true that he has an ID, passport or any document given to him by any Ecuadorian consulate,” Galo Galarza said. “It is possible that he may have letters of recommendation or references. But from our side, the Foreign Ministry, we have not provided any document as is being reported by some media outlets.”
Documents Snowden provided to newspapers revealed the scope of U.S. programs that collect records of domestic telephone calls in the United States and monitor the Internet activity of overseas residents. The disclosures shook the U.S. intelligence community and raised questions about whether the NSA is eroding American civil liberties. Defenders of the program say it has helped investigators break up several terrorist plots and that the operations are conducted under the oversight of all three branches of government.
Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post published a story Monday quoting Snowden as saying he took a job at computer consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton to gather evidence on U.S. surveillance programs.
Snowden went to Hong Kong before details of the NSA leaks began appearing in newspapers. He left Sunday, after the United States asked authorities in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory to hold him for extradition proceedings.
The United States has expressed dismay at the failure of the Hong Kong government to stop Snowden, with White House spokesman Jay Carney calling the decision “a serious setback” to U.S.-China ties. But Hong Kong’s top prosecutor, Rimsky Yuen, said U.S. officials failed to respond to a request for further information, leaving authorities there unable to arrest him.
Yuen told reporters late Tuesday that some documents referred to an “Edward James Snowden,” while Hong Kong immigration records listed his middle name as Joseph, and another document only referred to “Edward J. Snowden.” That, along with a lack of a passport number, slowed down a decision on issuing an arrest warrant, Yuen said.
But in a statement provided to CNN, the U.S. Justice Department said Hong Kong’s request for more information were just a dodge that let Snowden get away.
“The true motive of the letter from Hong Kong authorities is revealed by its request for the supposed ‘clarification’ of Mr. Snowden’s identity with regard to his middle name,” the statement said. “That Hong Kong would ask for more information about his identity demonstrates that it was simply trying to create a pretext for not acting on the provisional arrest request.”
The statement said U.S. officials had met all legal requirements in its paperwork. And a law enforcement official said officials in Hong Kong had the request from the United States for days but waited until Friday night to raise concern about Snowden’s name.
CNN’s Carol Cratty, Elise Labott, Vivian Kam, Adam Levine, Catherine E. Shoichet and Joseph Netto contributed to this report.