President Barack Obama found that his personal efforts to shore up relations with the leaders of China and Russia failed to pay off as fugitive Edward Snowden traveled to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport from Hong Kong en route to a permanent refuge, perhaps in Ecuador.
Obama met just this month with Chinese President Xi Jinping in California and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of Eight Summit. The flight by Snowden, a self-described whistle-blower evading U.S. Espionage Act charges, marks a reversal for that diplomacy. U.S. lawmakers yesterday criticized China and particularly Russia, warning of consequences for failing to hold Snowden for extradition.
“The efforts by the Obama administration in Palm Springs, California, with the Chinese, and then in Northern Ireland with the Russians to find areas of common agreement have been dealt a pretty big setback,” said Bruce Riedel, a 30-year veteran of the CIA and director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy-research group.
Secretary of State John Kerry today called on Russia to turn Snowden over to U.S. authorities, saying that the U.S. has transferred to Russia seven prisoners “that they wanted” in the past few years. He also criticized China, saying “it would be very disappointing” if Snowden had been “willfully allowed to board an airplane” in Hong Kong.
Kerry, speaking in New Delhi, said Snowden “places himself above the law” and questioned why he chose China and Russia to help him avoid the U.S. where he’s wanted on charges of leaking classified information. “They’re such powerful bastions of Internet freedom,” Kerry said mockingly of the two countries. He said he wondered whether Snowden “raised the questions about Internet freedoms” with China and Russia “since that’s what he seems to champion.”
The involvement of China and Russia raises questions about their relationship with Snowden and what information he may provide them, Jane Harman, president of the Wilson Center, another Washington research group, said in an interview.
“Clearly, he now is a pawn in a big-power game, and I think that game is way too big for him,” said Harman, a former Democratic congresswoman from California who served on the House intelligence committee.
Snowden wouldn’t be permitted to make his moves without the knowledge of senior Chinese and Russian officials, suggesting those governments may see him as an information source, Riedel said.
“The story line has changed pretty dramatically today from a single whistle-blower to maybe someone who’s been working with foreign intelligence agencies in the last few weeks, but a lot of question marks will have to be raised about what he’s been up to,” Riedel said.
U.S. lawmakers criticized China yesterday for failing to prevent Snowden from leaving Hong Kong and urged Russia’s Putin not to protect Snowden, a former contract computer systems technician for the National Security Agency who has identified himself as the source of leaks about U.S. surveillance of telephone calls and Internet traffic.
“What’s infuriating here” is Putin “aiding and abetting Snowden’s escape,” New York Senator Charles Schumer, the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “I think it will have serious consequences for the United States-Russia relationship.”
The Russians should know “there will be consequences if they harbor this guy,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of the Armed Services Committee, said on the “Fox News Sunday” program.
Still, the U.S. has many other matters on its agenda with China and Russia that the Obama administration may not want to jeopardize over Snowden, said Barry Pavel, a vice president at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group.
“The Obama administration may decide to play hardball because of the potential damage to national security,” Pavel said in an interview. The more likely course, he said, is that the administration will continue to “try to work with these countries to strengthen cooperation on a broad range of issues because there’s a lot at stake” in areas such as the global economy, the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, and the civil war in Syria, he said.
The U.S. intelligence community is concerned that Snowden has intelligence value to nations such as Russia and China beyond documents he allegedly has stolen on a thumb drive and laptop computers, said two U.S. officials who asked not to be identified discussing intelligence matters. He also knows about top-secret communications intercepts, decrypted messages and other electronic intelligence, as well as vulnerabilities of communications systems and NSA workers, they said.
Snowden landed in Moscow yesterday after fleeing Hong Kong, which had rejected a U.S. warrant for his arrest. The anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks said on its website he is bound for Ecuador “via a safe route for the purposes of asylum.”
Ecuador will “act upon our principles” and made its decision about Snowden at an “opportune moment,” Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino Aroca said in Hanoi today. The Latin American country’s embassy in London has been sheltering the founder of the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, for more than a year after granting him asylum.
Hong Kong’s Role
Snowden left Hong Kong “through a lawful and normal channel,” the city government said in a statement. U.S. documents seeking his arrest didn’t comply with legal requirements and there was thus “no legal basis to restrict Mr. Snowden from leaving Hong Kong,” according to the statement.
China, which resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, can intervene in extraditions from the city if it relates to China’s defense or foreign affairs. Schumer said he sees “the hand of Beijing” involved.
“China clearly had a role in this, in my view,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said yesterday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“I don’t think this was just Hong Kong without Chinese acquiescence,” she said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s press service, which said it was aware of reports that Snowden is transiting in Moscow, declined to comment further.
It isn’t known for certain whether Snowden will head to Ecuador. Snowden, who had been booked to fly from Moscow to Havana today, didn’t board the flight at Sheremetyevo International Airport, said an official for state-owned OAO Aeroflot (AFLT), asking not to be identified because the information is confidential.
Ecuador risks losing U.S. trade preferences, which will expire next month if not renewed by Congress.
President Rafael Vicente Correa may be trying to solidify his credentials as the next leader of the group of anti-American countries once led by the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, said Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami.
“There’s no chance he’ll hand Snowden over to the U.S.,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “It would completely contradict everything he’s done since taking power.”
His action may cost Ecuador’s economy, hurting a chance to win congressional renewal of the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act that provides duty-free access to the U.S. market for products including flowers, shrimp and fresh produce.
The U.S is Ecuador’s largest export market. The U.S. imported $9.5 billion in goods from Ecuador and exported $6.7 billion in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.