President Barack Obama said he won’t engage in “wheeling and dealing” or jeopardize cooperation on a broad range of issues with China or Russia in the U.S. pursuit of leaker Edward Snowden.
At a news conference yesterday in Dakar, Senegal, the U.S. president said he hasn’t spoken with Chinese President Xi Jinping or Russian President Vladimir Putin as the U.S. seeks Snowden’s extradition. “I shouldn’t have to,” Obama said.
Obama also said he has no plans to use the military to intercept any flight with Snowden aboard. “No, I’m not going to be scrambling jets” to go after a “hacker,” he said.
The president’s comments reflect U.S. efforts to turn to diplomacy from confrontation in seeking the return of Snowden, who Putin has said is in the transit zone of a Moscow airport after authorities in Hong Kong let him leave. The former government contractor has revealed he was the source of leaks on top-secret U.S. National Security Agency programs that collect phone and Internet data.
Snowden has applied for asylum in Ecuador, which said yesterday that it’s renouncing U.S. trade benefits rather than have them used as “blackmail” to prevent it from taking in the fugitive. The government there denied yesterday that it had authorized documents granting Snowden safe passage to travel between Hong Kong and Moscow.
Snowden, a former employee of Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp., left Hong Kong two days after U.S. authorities disclosed that federal prosecutors had filed theft and espionage charges against him. He faces as many as 10 years in prison on the theft count and 10 years on each of two espionage charges.
The case roiled international relations after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry this week warned China and Russia of “consequences” for their actions and ridiculed Snowden for choosing those countries “as assistants in his flight from justice because they’re such powerful bastions of Internet freedom.”
Echoing more conciliatory language that Kerry and other administration officials have used in the days that followed, Obama said yesterday that there have been “some useful conversations” between the U.S. and Russia and that “we’ll continue to press them” to resolve the issue.
Putin has said he hopes Snowden’s case “won’t affect the business-like nature of our relations with the U.S.” and that the fugitive can’t be turned over because Russia and the U.S. don’t have an extradition treaty.
Obama said he isn’t going to let Snowden’s case be “elevated to the point where I’ve got to start doing wheeling and dealing and trading on a whole host of other issues.”
“I get why it’s a fascinating story from a press perspective, and I’m sure there will be a made-for-TV movie somewhere down the line,” he said. “But in terms of U.S. interests, the damage was done with respect to the initial leaks.”
Still, Obama said the U.S. remains concerned about additional revelations by Snowden. “We don’t yet know what other documents he may try to dribble out there,” he said.
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said the U.S is “actively seeking to determine” what information Snowden has. He said at a briefing in Dakar yesterday that the “appropriate” channel for working with Russia is the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. FBI Director Robert Mueller has been involved in those discussions.
As Snowden remains in Moscow, Ecuador’s political management secretary, Betty Tola, said in a statement in the presidential gazette that Ecuador never guaranteed Snowden’s safe passage.
U.S. Spanish-language broadcaster Univision Communications Inc. published a copy of a letter on its website on June 26 that it says was issued by Ecuador’s Embassy in London on June 22 giving Snowden a “safepass” to allow him to travel to Ecuador.
“The government of Ecuador hasn’t authorized the issuance of any safe conduct or refugee document that would allow Mr. Snowden to travel to our country,” Tola said. “Any document in this regard has no validity and is the exclusive responsibility of whoever issued it.”
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said yesterday the embassy in London wasn’t authorized to issue any travel documents giving Snowden safe passage from Hong Kong to Moscow. Still, he said, the government wasn’t sure whether such travel papers were issued by the London embassy.
The country yesterday renounced its U.S. trade benefits, with Correa saying during a visit to the Los Rios province that his country “doesn’t accept pressure or threats from anyone.” He said the government will provide tax benefits to compensate companies affected by the loss of U.S. preferences.
Ecuador “doesn’t barter its principles and sovereignty or submit to mercantile interests,” Correa said. What Snowden revealed “is a terrible case of massive espionage, both nationally and internationally that clearly threatens the right to intimacy and the sovereignty of states,” Correa said.
The move came a day after U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, vowed to lead an effort to block renewal of trade preferences for Ecuador if it granted Snowden asylum. The Andean nation had been lobbying Congress to renew the provisions, which are due to expire next month.
The renewal of U.S. trade benefits was already in doubt. U.S. relations are strained with Ecuador, where Correa is vying to succeed Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez as the leading U.S. critic in Latin America.
Ecuador would lose at least 40,000 jobs if the trade preferences aren’t renewed, the nation’s Ambassador to the U.S. Nathalie Cely said last year. While most of the $1.01 billion in exports to the U.S. in April was oil, shipments also included more labor intensive products such as cut flowers, broccoli and shrimp. Exports fell from $1.14 billion in April 2012, according to U.S. Census data.