Snowden gets Russia asylum; White House ‘extremely disappointed’
MOSCOW (CNN) — The White House is “extremely disappointed” that National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.
Snowden has legal status in Russia for one year, his Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena said earlier Thursday, adding that his client has left the Moscow airport. Hours later White House spokesman Jay Carney spoke about the news in a press conference.
The United States is reconsidering a planned meeting between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin next month in Moscow before a G-20 gathering in St. Petersburg, Russia, he said. “We are evaluating the utility of a summit.”
The U.S. was not given a heads-up about Russia’s decision, according to spokesmen from the White House and State Department.
“We were not informed in advance of this move,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. “We are currently reaching out to the Russian government for formal confirmation and to discuss the issue further.”
Harf said that U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has previously discussed the United States’ feelings on Snowden and reiterated those views Thursday.
In an interview with state-run Russia 24, Kucherena said that Russia “didn’t have a choice” in granting his client asylum.
“It was a humane decision because Edward couldn’t come and buy himself tickets to Havana or any other countries since he had no passport,” the attorney told the news outlet. “So Russia behaved very honest in this situation.”
The lawyer added: “It’s not right to implement any sanctions” against Russia.
A former U.S. government contract employee, Snowden leaked to the media that the NSA had secretly collected and stored millions of phone records from accounts in the United States. The agency also collected information from U.S. companies on the Internet activity of overseas residents, he said.
Snowden has been at the center of a sensational story about government surveillance, privacy and leaking for almost two months. He had been living in limbo at the airport in Moscow.
Snowden has said he is afraid he would not get a fair trial if he came back to the United States.
In addition to categorizing White HOuse reaction as “extremely disappointed,” Carney said Thursday that Snowden faces three felony charges for leaking classified information.
WikiLeaks, the secrets-busting site that has put itself firmly behind Snowden and another infamous leaker — recently convicted Bradley Manning — seemed thrilled about the news.
“We would like to thank the Russian people and all those others who have helped to protect Mr. Snowden. We have won the battle — now the war,” WikiLeaks said on Twitter.
In another tweet, the group said, “Edward Snowden was granted temporary asylum in Russia for a year and has now left Moscow airport under the care of WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison.”
And this tweet: “FLASH: We can now confirm that Edward Snowden’s welfare has been continuously monitored by WikiLeaks staff since his presence in Hong Kong.”
The statement quotes Snowden after he received his asylum certificate.
“Over the past eight weeks we have seen the Obama administration show no respect for international or domestic law, but in the end the law is winning,” the quote reads. “I thank the Russian Federation for granting me asylum in accordance with its laws and international obligations.”
CNN cannot authenticate if indeed Snowden made that statement.
U.S. expecting move?
The U.S. and Russia are still on track to hold a top level meeting in Washington next week in preparation for G-20 summit. Obama is expected to meet in D.C. with Putin, according to a U.S. official.
The official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the information, said that the White House could still decide to change the date of the Washington meeting, or even decide to not hold the meeting. The official emphasized that no decision had been made as of midday Thursday.
The meeting is expected to include U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and their Russian counterparts. Agenda topics include missile defense, nuclear arms reductions and the crisis in Syria, the official said.
Separately Pentagon Press Secretary George Little told reporters, “We obviously want to maintain our relationship with the Russian military.”
He said he had no comment about any upcoming meetings with the Russians.
Another U.S. official who also declined to be named said that the Russian government “has been signaling … for some time” that it planned to grant Snowden temporary asylum. “I don’t think it’s a shock,” the official told CNN’s Barbara Starr.
While the Russians have signaled their intentions publicly, the U.S. also learned of the country’s plans in private conversations between senior U.S. and Russian officials over the last several weeks, the official said.
Senior White House, Justice Department, State Department and CIA officials had been speaking privately with their counterparts in Russia since the crisis developed. The official did not, however, say that the U.S. had been formally notified of the decision in advance.
While the Obama administration has to make a decision about what to do next in its relations with Moscow, the U.S. national security agencies are hoping to continue cooperation with Russia on counterterrorism matters. The official said the April Boston terror attack “reinforced the need for that.”
The U.S. and Russia also are already cooperating on security for the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, which the official noted are already being threatened by Chechen terrorists.
“Russia’s action today is a disgrace and a deliberate effort to embarrass” the U.S., Sen. John McCain said in a statement.
“It is a slap in the face of all Americans,” McCain said, calling for the U.S. to fundamentally rethink” its relations with Russian President Putin.
Harsh reactions from lawmakers continued to pour in.
“Russia has stabbed us in the back, and each day that Mr. Snowden is allowed to roam free is another twist of the knife,” said New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer in a statement. “Others who have practiced civil disobedience in the past have stood up and faced the charges because they strongly believed in what they were doing.
“Mr. Snowden is a coward who has chosen to run,” Schumer said. “Given Russia’s decision today, the President should recommend moving the G-20 summit.”
Snowden is a “fugitive who belongs in a United States courtroom, not a free man deserving of asylum in Russia,” Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.
Russia’s action is “a setback to U.S.-Russia relations,” said Menendez, D-New Jersey. Snowden “will potentially do great damage to U.S. national security interests,” and the leaked information “could aid terrorists,” he said.
A CNN journalist saw the Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin in the hallway at the Capitol building and asked him what he thought. “I’m sorry they offered it (asylum) to him,” Levin answered.
CNN asked how the move might affect relations between U.S. and Russia.
“It doesn’t help them,” he answered. “I hope it doesn’t set them back too far because they already have plenty of challenges.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, in a statement, said that “Americans in Washington should consider this a game changer in our relationship with Russia.”
Russia “could not be more provocative,” and Thursday’s developments in Snowden’s case show that Putin has a “clear lack of respect for President Obama,” Lindsey said.
He called on Congress and the Obama administration to make it clear to Russia that the U.S. will react in a “firm” way.
Russia media quotes Snowden’s father
Snowden’s father Lon Snowden, who has vehemently supported his son, appeared on state-run Russia 24 Thursday. He’s grateful to Russia and the country’s decision to grant asylum is worth respect, he said.
He loves his son, he added, and is looking forward to getting a visa to visit Moscow.
On Wednesday night, a lawyer representing the father appeared on “Anderson Cooper 360″ and said that Snowden was in good health in Russia and that his lawyer was open to hammering out an ending that would satisfy all.
Attorney Bruce Fein relayed the conversation he had with Kucherena, he told Cooper.
“There may be a time where it would be constructive to try and meet and see whether there can’t be common ground that everyone agrees would advance the interest, the United States, Mr. Snowden, Lon, his father, and the interest of Russia in trying to resolve this in a way that honors due process and the highest principles of fairness and civilization,” Fein said.
Kucherena earlier told Russian news agency Itar-Tass that he’d start working on Lon Snowden’s visa application.
“I telephoned him (Edward Snowden) today. We agreed that I would prepare an invitation for his father to visit Russia. I hope that the visa formalities will not be long,” Kucherena said Wednesday.
Fein has objected to the government’s intent to prosecute Snowden.
“The majority of the American people now have voiced grave concerns about the scope of that program. And it seems somewhat odd to be prosecuting somebody for disclosing government wrongdoing.”
He said that Snowden had the courage to spark a conversation that Obama has called “urgent.”
Snowden leaks again
On Wednesday, Snowden once again made himself a thorn in the side of the NSA.
The British daily The Guardian, which broke news of the NSA programs on the surveillance of phone and Internet metadata after Snowden leaked the information, revealed yet another NSA data collecting scheme.
The report says that according to the leaked documents, XKeyscore allows intelligence agents to see anything you’ve ever done on the Internet. With ease, they can observe your browsing history, searches, e-mails, chats and more, the report says, and it does not require a search warrant.
After the article was published, Snowden came forward as the source.
FBI and Snowden’s father
Snowden’s father told Anderson Cooper that the FBI had wanted to fly him to Moscow to encourage the National Security Agency leaker to come home to the United States.
But Lon Snowden said he backed out because it was not clear he would be able to speak to his son.
When he asked FBI agents if they would be able to set up communications, they hesitated, he said. And that made him suspicious.
“I’m not going to get on a flight and go to Moscow and sit on a tarmac to be an emotional tool for you to use against him. I want to first be able to speak to my son,” he said he told the agents.
Lon Snowden has previously said that he wants his son to stay in Russia until he is confident he can get a fair trial in the United States.
“I am not confident at all,” he said.
Even though Manning was found this week to be not guilty of aiding the enemy — one of most serious charges he faced — the fact that the soldier was convicted of 20 charges including several under the Espionage Act made Snowden’s father uneasy, he said.
But, he added, his son’s case is “completely different” from Manning’s.
“I think my son has exercised discretion in the information that he has shared,” he said.
By the numbers
Russian citizens generally support the NSA leaker.
An opinion survey reported by RIA Novosti shows 51% of Russians back Edward Snowden’s actions. The rest either disapprove or haven’t made up their minds yet.
On the question of asylum, 43% are generally in favor of the idea, according to the Levada Center poll.
CNN’s Phil Black reported from Moscow. Ashley Fantz in Atlanta wrote this story. CNN’s Barbara Starr, Ted Barrett, Tom Cohen and Ben Brumfield contributed to this report.