WASHINGTON: The White House pressured Russia to expel fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden and warned China it had harmed efforts to rebuild trust by allowing him to leave Hong Kong.
As intrigue in the case mounted, US President Barack Obama said Washington was using every legal channel to apprehend Snowden, who vanished in Moscow, not taking a flight to Cuba on which he was booked — possibly on a journey scheduled to end up in Ecuador.
He was said by Russian officials to have spent Sunday night in a “capsule hotel” at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport awaiting his onward connection.
Russia’s Interfax news agency, known for its strong security contacts, confirmed that he was not on the Havana flight and quoted an informed source as saying he was likely already out of the country.
Snowden had arrived in Moscow on Sunday from Hong Kong, from where he leaked to the media details of secret cyber-espionage programmes by both US and British intelligence agencies.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, himself holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London to avoid claims of sexual assault in Sweden, said Snowden was “safe” after leaving Hong Kong with a refugee document supplied by Quito after the United States revoked his passport.
And Snowden made another revelation sure to irk the US government.
He told the South China Morning Post in a story that appeared Tuesday that he joined the NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, from which he stole secrets on the surveillance programs, specifically to gain access to information on such activities and spill it to the press
“My position with Booz Allen Hamilton granted me access to lists of machines all over the world the NSA hacked,” he told the Post. “That is why I accepted that position about three months ago.” The interview was conducted June 12.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Washington assumed that Snowden was still in Moscow. He lashed out at Beijing for letting him go, despite US extradition requests.
“With regards to … the Chinese government, we are just not buying that this was a technical decision by a Hong Kong immigration official,” he said.
“This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant, and that decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the US-China relationship.”
Carney noted that Beijing, as evidenced by Obama’s summit with new president Xi Jinping this month in California, had been seeking to rebuild trust with Washington.
“We think that they have dealt that effort a serious setback. If we cannot count on them to honor their legal extradition obligations, then there is a problem. And that is a point we are making to them very directly.”
Carney also told reporters the White House believes Russia should accept a request for Snowden to be expelled back to the United States.
“We do expect the Russian government to look at all the options available to them to expel Mr Snowden back to the United States,” he said.
He refused to speculate on the implications of any failure by Russia to hand over Snowden.
He also said Washington had been in touch with countries through which Snowden might transit, noting that he was a fugitive from felony charges in the United States. His US passport has been revoked.
Obama declined to say whether he had contacted Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he met a week ago in Northern Ireland.
Patrick Ventrell, a State Department spokesman, said the administration had been in touch with Ecuador, which has said Snowden has asked for asylum.
In New Delhi, US Secretary of State John Kerry also voiced hope that Russia has reconsidered allowing Snowden to fly out.
“We continue to hope that the Russians will do the right thing,” Kerry told NBC News.
“We have very high hopes that the Russians, who’ve said they want to cooperate and have a strong relationship with us, will understand that this is important,” he said.
“I hope it’s a good sign he isn’t on that flight,” he said.
Interfax quoted a source close to the matter as saying Russia was studying an extradition request from the United States for Snowden.
However, the source said Russia does not have the right to either “detain or deport” Snowden because he has not officially crossed the Russian border