MOSCOW – U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden said Friday he wanted to claim asylum in Russia until he can travel on to Latin America, where several countries have offered him refuge.
In his first encounter with the outside world since becoming stranded at Moscow’s Sheremet- yevo International Airport three weeks ago, Snowden met Russian rights activists and lawyers.
He is still looking for a safe haven from U.S. attempts to extradite him to face espionage charges for disclosing extensive American surveillance activities.
Washington kept up the pressure, however, warning Moscow against allowing Snowden to stay in the country and continue his embarrassing revelations.
U.S. President Barack Obama spoke by phone with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Friday, as previously scheduled. No details were released but the White House had said Snowden would be discussed.
“Providing a propaganda platform for Mr. Snowden runs counter to the Russian government’s previous declarations of Russia’s neutrality,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“It’s also incompatible with Russian assurances that they do not want Mr. Snowden to further damage U.S. interests.”
Carney renewed a U.S. call on Russia to expel Snowden so that he can be returned to American soil to face trial for leaking U.S. national security secrets.
Amateur footage aired on television showed Snowden dressed in a gray shirt and looking relaxed as he read out a statement.
“I announce today my formal acceptance of all offers of support or asylum I have been extended and all others that may be offered in the future,” he told his audience, which included representatives from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
“That moral decision to tell the public about spying that affects all of us has been costly, but it was the right thing to do and I have no regrets,” the 30-year-old former National Security Agency contractor said.
Snowden, who has no official travel documents, said he hoped Russia would accept his renewed asylum request so he could then work out a way to travel legally to Latin America.
Although most countries to which he has applied for asylum have rejected his request, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have all indicated they would be open to offering Snowden a safe haven.
Human Rights Watch senior researcher Tanya Lokshina, who attended Friday’s meeting, reported that Snowden feels safe at the airport, but it has become clear he “couldn’t stay indefinitely.” On her way to the meeting, she got a phone call from a U.S. diplomat who, she said, asked her to relay to Snowden that the United States does not consider him a whistle-blower — a category that has a fairly precise legal definition.
But Snowden, in his statement, said the U.S. intelligence service’s covert surveillance activities violated not just the U.S. Constitution but the U.N. declaration of human rights.
In denouncing what he saw as illegal activities, “I did what I believed right,” he added.
His statement was posted online by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.Latin American leaders defended their right to offer asylum to Snowden at a summit of the regional bloc Mercosur held in the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo.
That included the right of safe passage for those granted asylum to the country offering them refuge, a Mercosur statement read.
Moscow said two weeks ago that Snowden had withdrawn his application for asylum in Russia after Putin said it was conditional on not damaging U.S. interests.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, repeated the Russian president’s condition that Snowden first had to stop any “activities harming our American partners and U.S.-Russian relations,” Russian agencies reported.
Snowden told his visitors that he has no problem meeting that condition, Lokshina said, because he believes he has not caused any harm to the U.S. with his revelations. It’s not clear the Kremlin would be in line with those semantics.
“As far as we know, he has considered and continues to consider himself a human rights champion and a defender of the rule of law and democracy and that he did not plan to abandon these activities,” Peskov said.
Russia has been ambivalent at best about his presence there, as an unwelcome complication in already strained relations with the United States. But by late evening, Russian authorities seemed to be making the best of a difficult situation, as a line of officials sought out the media and voiced their support for asylum.
The speaker of the Russian lower house of parliament, Putin ally Sergei Naryshkin, told state television that Russia should grant Snowden asylum, describing him as a “defender of human rights.”