The world’s most closely watched layover ended on Thursday as Russia granted temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the accused intelligence leaker who’d been holed up in a Moscow airport’s transit lounge since June 23.
The Obama administration, which for weeks had issued only muted criticism of Russia as it implored President Vladimir Putin’s government to “do the right thing,” lashed out at the decision to offer Snowden a haven but didn’t dwell on possible repercussions.
Members of Congress fumed, calling on President Barack Obama to respond firmly. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the affront was a “game changer” for U.S.-Russia relations. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said “Russia has stabbed us in the back” and asked Obama to recommend moving the G-20 economic summit, which is scheduled for next month in the Russian city of St. Petersburg.
But relations with Russia already are so frayed, analysts say, that there’s little the U.S. could do to punish Putin for taking in Snowden, who’s regarded by many here and abroad as a whistleblower for revealing a top-secret government spy program.
As dramatic as Snowden’s revelations are, his hiding out in Russia may not even be the worst snag in bilateral relations, which have deteriorated over the past 18 months and killed Obama’s goal of a “reset.” Other strains include disagreements over Syria, Russia’s freeze on U.S. adoptions of Russian children, and Congress’ approval of a law barring several Russian officials from entering the U.S.
“We don’t have a lot of leverage in that regard,” said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research institute in Washington.
The White House expressed extreme disappointment with Russia’s decision, said it hadn’t gotten a heads-up from the Russian government and wouldn’t elaborate on any steps it might take as a repercussion beyond evaluating whether Obama should cancel a scheduled meeting with Putin in Moscow before the G-20 summit in September.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the United States has a “broad and important relationship with Russia,” which includes cooperation along with “disagreement and conflict.” He noted that Obama had said he didn’t want Snowden to be an issue in the relationship “because of its breadth and importance.”
The message was the same at the State Department, where spokeswoman Marie Harf predicted no big break in relations with Moscow over the Snowden affair, which she painted as separate from Syria, missile defense and other areas on which the U.S. needs Russian cooperation.
Snowden, 30, a former CIA employee and National Security Agency contractor, revealed himself to be the leaker of classified documents about surveillance programs. The U.S. government has charged him with various felonies under the Espionage Act.
Now that asylum has been granted, Snowden ostensibly has the same rights as anyone in the country, though it wasn’t clear whether his Russian papers could serve as documents that would allow him to travel to other countries.
Even though Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua have offered Snowden asylum, he was effectively stranded in Moscow because the U.S. government had revoked his passport, and all flight paths out put him in danger of interception by U.S.-friendly nations that probably would’ve returned him to the United States.
The State Department also launched a diplomatic campaign to make sure that any nation that was a potential pit stop on Snowden’s way to Latin America would take steps to stop him.
Snowden’s escape from the airport came on the day a new poll showed that most American voters – 55 percent, across party lines – consider Snowden a whistleblower and not a traitor, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday. Thirty-four percent say he’s a traitor. The finding is unchanged from a July 10 survey, but it shows remarkable consistency in the views of different groups of Americans. Even a majority of Republicans, 51 percent, thought Snowden was a whistleblower, not a traitor. Democrats favored whistleblower by 56 percent to 36 percent.
“Most American voters think positively of Edward Snowden, but that was before he accepted asylum in Russia,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
A McClatchy-Marist poll last week found that a majority of Americans feel the government has gone too far in monitoring the digital activity of private citizens. Responses were mixed on Snowden, but that survey, too, found that a plurality of Americans think he’s a whistleblower, not a traitor, by 49 percent to 38 percent.
The asylum grant came despite assurances last week by Attorney General Eric Holder that Snowden would not face the death penalty or torture if he were returned to the United States. In a letter made public Friday, Holder told Russian Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov that the former contractor’s professed fears of facing abuse and possible execution are “entirely without merit.”
“The charges he faces do not carry that possibility, and the United States would not seek the death penalty even if Mr. Snowden were charged with additional, death penalty-eligible crimes,” Holder wrote. “Second, Mr. Snowden will not be tortured. Torture is unlawful in the United States.”
Snowden’s attorney, Anatoly Kucherena, said on Russian television that his client had been granted a yearlong asylum. Kucherena confirmed that Snowden had left the airport, but he wouldn’t divulge his new location out of security concerns.
Earlier, Kucherena had pledged to help Snowden’s father, Lou, get a visa to visit his son in Russia. Lou Snowden gave interviews earlier this week in which he praised Putin for protecting his son. And WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group that published classified U.S. information and has taken on Snowden’s case, tweeted thanks to “the Russian people and all those others who have helped to protect Mr. Snowden.”
Such statements sounded deeply ironic to analysts who are familiar with Russia’s own human rights record and shadowy spy programs.
“Vladimir Putin working to defend the freedoms of Americans?” Kuchins, the Russia analyst, said mockingly. “At some level he loves it, and at some level he’s very uncomfortable with this discussion of public surveillance.”