WASHINGTON/MOSCOW – Russia’s granting of temporary asylum to former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden against Washington’s wishes unleashed calls from members of both parties Thursday for President Barack Obama to take a harder line against his counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Republican senators including John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called the decision “a slap in the face of all Americans.” They urged tighter limits on U.S. entry and banking access for Russian officials and called for the Obama administration to alter its missile-defense policy to stop accommodating Russian concerns.
“Any time our president is seen to be disrespected, it’s not good,” Graham said in an interview. “Our foreign policy is not working. This is an example of it not working.”
Russia’s move, made without warning the U.S. beforehand, left White House officials assessing the domestic political damage as well as its impact on ties with Putin’s government. Some political analysts said Obama is in a no-win situation. If Snowden is not returned to the U.S., the president risks looking weak. If he’s extradited back home, it would make Obama’s domestic surveillance program a bigger issue in next year’s mid-term elections.
Even a Democrat, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, prodded Obama to push for a new host country for next month’s Group of 20 summit that Obama is set to attend in St. Petersburg, Russia. “Russia has stabbed us in the back, and each day that Mr. Snowden is allowed to roam free is another twist of the knife,” he said.
Even before Russia’s move Thursday, some lawmakers were calling for the U.S. to boycott next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, southern Russia.
Stu Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington, said Snowden’s exposure of secret U.S. phone and Internet surveillance programs ensured a debate over national security and privacy in next year’s elections regardless of whether Russia granted asylum.
If Russia had returned Snowden to the U.S., “it would still be controversial, wouldn’t it?” Rothenberg asked.
“He would be a hero to some people,” Rothenberg said of Snowden. “Some people would say, ‘It’s not about him; it’s about the government’s policies.’ I think either way the issue would be churning.”
In any case, Snowden is unlikely to be a dominant election issue so much as part of the mix with the economy, health care and other issues, Rothenberg said.
“You’re going to now have Republicans say this demonstrates how Obama’s foreign policy has failed and the U.S. can be easily ignored,” he said. “They couldn’t do that if the Russians returned him. But either way, it was going to be controversial. Either way, we’re still going to be talking about Snowden 14 months from now.”
Following hours of silence as Obama’s advisers sought to gather facts and formulate a response, White House press secretary Jay Carney said at a midday briefing that the U.S. is “extremely disappointed” with Russia’s decision and is “evaluating the utility” of a bilateral summit between Obama and Putin that was to have taken place next month in Moscow.
Obama is not seeking a change of venue for the G-20 summit and Obama expects to take part in the St. Petersburg meeting, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified.
U.S. lawmakers blasted Russia’s handling of Snowden and said Putin’s administration should be held accountable. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, called on Obama to “engage” the Russian leader in a way that is “satisfactory to the American people.”
Carney defended Obama’s policy of “reset” toward Russia, which has been aimed at softening longstanding tensions between the countries in order to yield cooperation on international issues.
Even as Russia has continued to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and, now, has granted Snowden temporary asylum, Carney said the shift in relations has translated to “positive benefits for American national security and for the American people.” Those include supply routes for U.S. troops in Afghanistan and a new START treaty for reducing the two nations’ nuclear arsenals.
“Our relationship with Russia, as is the case with other important countries around the world, is based in realism,” Carney said.
Snowden, 30, who faces espionage charges in the U.S., received a document Thursday from the Russian Migration Service that allowed him to leave Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow and travel freely in Russia for the next 12 months. The temporary asylum was granted after repeated U.S. calls for Snowden to be returned to the U.S. for prosecution.
The former NSA contract worker had been holed up in the airport since arriving from Hong Kong on June 23. He left in a taxi for a “safe location” that will not be disclosed, said Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden’s Moscow-based lawyer.
In a statement issued by WikiLeaks, which has been assisting him, Snowden was quoted as saying that “over the past eight weeks we have seen the Obama administration show no respect for international or domestic law, but in the end the law is winning.
“I thank the Russian Federation for granting me asylum in accordance with its laws and international obligations,” he said.
Kucherena was shown on Russian television holding a passport-like document issued to Snowden by Russia’s Federal Migration Service and valid for one year.
The one-year asylum Snowden was granted can be extended indefinitely, and he also has the right to seek Russian citizenship.
There was no clue about where Snowden will live in Russia, or what he will do.
Kucherena would say only that his client has American friends assisting him. Snowden reportedly earned high pay as an NSA contractor, but how much money he has on hand in a notoriously expensive city is unknown.
Still, he now has the right to work in Russia, and late Thursday, the founder of Russia’s Facebook-like social network site VKontakte, made what sounded like a job offer.
“We will be happy if he decides to supplement the team of star programmers at VKontakte,” Pavel Durov wrote on his page.