NSA Leaker Edward Snowden a ‘Free Man’ in Moscow Airport

Posted at 9:26 PM, Jun 25, 2013
and last updated 2013-06-25 21:26:40-04

(CNN)Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who spilled U.S. surveillance secrets to the world, is a “free man” biding his time in a Moscow airport, Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters Tuesday.

Putin said Snowden — who flew to Moscow from Hong Kong on Sunday — is in the “transit area” of Sheremetyevo International Airport, the zone between arrival gates and Russia’s passport control checkpoints. While he said Russia won’t hand Snowden over to the United States, he seemed eager to have the focus of international intrigue off his hands.

“The sooner he selects his final destination point, the better both for us and for himself,” Putin said from Finland of Snowden, who is wanted by U.S. officials on espionage charges for disclosing classified details of U.S. surveillance programs.

Putin’s comments end, for now at least, the international pastime of “Where’s Snowden?” There have been rumors for days that that the former NSA contractor had perhaps duped the world into thinking he was in Moscow to throw pursuers off his trail as he seeks a safe haven from U.S. prosecution.

Kristinn Hrafnsson — a spokesman for WikiLeaks, an organization that facilitates the anonymous leaking of secret information and has one of its members with Snowden in Russia — told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday only that Snowden “is in a safe place and is comfortable and possibly simply relaxing after a very stressful week.”

Noting the United States and Russia do not have an extradition agreement, Putin said Snowden can’t be turned over to U.S. authorities and has committed no crimes on Russian soil.

But he also said Russian security forces have not been “working with” Snowden and expressed hope that the incident would not “affect the cordial nature of our relations with the U.S.” Hrafnsson offered a similar story, saying there’s been “no cooperation or coordination with the Russian authority” before or since Snowden arrived in Moscow.

A senior Obama administration official called Putin’s comments “potentially positive” while reiterating hopes that Snowden would be expelled from Russia and returned to the United States.

U.S. officials believe Russian authorities have a “clear legal basis to expel Mr. Snowden, based on the status of his travel documents and the pending charges against him,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said.

Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to reporters while traveling in Saudi Arabia, said the United States isn’t looking to Russia to enforce U.S. law, only to “allow him to be subject to the laws of our land and our Constitution.”

“We are not looking for confrontation, we’re not ordering anybody,” Kerry said. “We’re simply requesting under a very normal procedure for the transfer of somebody, just as we transferred to Russia seven people in the last two years that they requested, that we did without any clamor, without any rancor, without any argument and according to our sense of the appropriateness of meeting their request.”

Snowden left Hong Kong on Sunday after a couple of weeks spent doling out details of classified U.S. intelligence programs to journalists.

With his passport revoked by U.S. officials, Snowden traveled out of the semiautonomous Chinese territory on refugee papers issued by Ecuador, one of the countries from which he is seeking asylum.

International tiff

His travels have sparked international dust-ups, with U.S. officials accusing China of making a “deliberate choice” to let Snowden go free and criticizing Russia for failing to hand him over in a spirit of international cooperation.

Measured tones mask Washington’s fury with Hong Kong over Snowden

On Tuesday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman rejected the U.S. claims as “unreasonable,” according to the official Xinhua news service.

“The accusation that the U.S. side made against the Central Government of China fell short of proof. The Chinese side will absolutely not accept it,” spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, Hong Kong’s justice secretary, likewise denied that authorities there intentionally let Snowden leave before acting on U.S. requests.

“All along, we acted fully in accordance with the law and any suggestion that we have been deliberately letting Mr. Snowden go away or to do any other thing to obstruct the normal operation is totally untrue,” Yuen said Tuesday.

Authorities in Hong Kong were seeking answers from U.S. authorities around when Snowden left, the justice secretary added. Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying said Monday that authorities acted independently from Beijing “to follow procedural fairness and procedural justice.”

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the U.S. complaints “absolutely groundless and unacceptable.”

“I want to say, right away, that we have nothing to do with Mr. Snowden or his movements around the world,” Lavrov said.

The White House is eager to avoid a repeat of what happened in Hong Kong, where authorities let Snowden leave despite a U.S. request for his arrest and extradition. Washington has described that move as a “serious setback” to building trust between the United States and China.

But the Obama administration doesn’t have much leverage with Moscow, said Matthew Rojansky, an expert on U.S. and Russian national security at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“We really need Russian cooperation, I think, much more in most areas than the Russians need us,” he said.