With the three Latin American countries that recently offered Mr. Snowden asylum having gone silent, and with the White House, on Friday, cautioning Russia not to offer the former NSA contractor a “propaganda platform,” Snowden apparently decided it was time to speak, emerging for a press conference Friday at the Moscow airport where he has been stranded since June 23.
Snowden expressed thanks for “all offers of support or asylum I have been extended,” but his decision to seek asylum in Russia – an option he turned down once already because of the restrictions Russian President Vladimir Putin said would accompany it – suggests that those other “offers” are not coming together as Snowden may have hoped.
Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua have offered Snowden asylum, but Snowden’s decision to try to stay in Russia suggests, at least, that he is having difficulty arranging transport to those countries. Most commercial flights to reach those countries would cross either US airspace or the airspace of countries in Western Europe that are friendly to the US and that could try to force a plane down to seize Snowden.
At his press conference Friday, Snowden indicated some concern about prospects for receiving asylum in Russia, as he implored the Russian lawmakers and human rights activists present to lobby their government on his behalf. Snowden seemed to be addressing Mr. Putin directly when he stated that his actions “didn’t do any damage to the United States.”
Putin had stipulated at a July 1 press conference that Snowden could stay in Russia only if he stopped divulging US government secrets. “If he wants to remain here there is one condition – he should stop his work aimed at inflicting damage on our American partners,” Putin said.
It remains to be seen if Snowden’s message to Putin is that he agrees to submit to the Russian leader’s gag order – or if he is simply saying he believes he meets Putin’s test because, in his view, his activities serve the broader interests of the American people.
At the White House Friday, spokesman Jay Carney said Russia should think twice about providing Snowden with a “propaganda platform.” He also said President Obama would discuss Snowden’s case with Mr. Putin on a previously scheduled telephone call between the two leaders later Friday afternoon.
During that call, Obama is likely to remind Putin that Snowden is wanted as a fugitive from US justice. Federal prosecutors filed espionage charges against Snowden in federal court on June 14.
Snowden, who divulged details of secret US telephone and e-mail data-collecting programs, spoke Friday alongside representatives of several international human rights organizations, as well as Russian political and legal figures, in what appeared to be the self-described whistleblower’s attempt to take back control of his own story.
Over recent weeks, as Snowden languished out of sight in a Moscow airport transit terminal, his tale had become less about Snowden’s self-claimed martyrdom to expose what he calls a massive global invasion of privacy and more about the diplomatic wrangling between the US and its Western supporters on one side, and primarily Latin American countries eager to use the case to score points against the US on the other.
Venezuela and Bolivia have said they would offer asylum, while Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said his country would grant asylum “if circumstances permit” – wording that some have seen as Mr. Ortega's way of sounding supportive of Snowden while guaranteeing nothing.
Ecuador has also said it might offer asylum if Snowden arrived on its territory, but Ecuadoran officials have also appeared to dampen Snowden’s prospects by saying their government would need “months” to decide any asylum bid.
At the same time, State Department officials and US diplomats have publicly and privately hinted at the negative consequences for a country that accepts Snowden, in terms of its relations with the US.
Earlier this week, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that US diplomats have been in regular contact with officials from Venezuela and the other countries that have offered Snowden asylum.
On Tuesday, Ms. Psaki also reiterated the US position that any Russian steps to help Snowden evade US justice would affect US-Russia relations. The US, she said, “would take into account” any assistance Russia offered an American sought by US law enforcement as it considers “our relationship.”