Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has been granted a year's political asylum in Russia. He has left Sheremetyevo airport and will remain in an "undisclosed location" for at least a day, according his lawyer Anatoly Kucherena.
Russian news agencies showed pictures of someone who might have been Mr. Snowden climbing into a car at Sheremetyevo airport Thursday afternoon, though no Western reporters witnessed any part of his passage through passport control and departure from the airport – where he has spend almost 7 weeks apparently cooped up in a "capsule hotel" in the legal limbo of the vast transit zone.
On Snowden's immediate agenda is a phone call from his father, which Mr. Kucherena said would be set up today, and some rather heavy contemplation about his future. Kucherena told journalists that the passport-like temporary asylum document he's been issued will enable him to travel freely around Russia, rent accommodation, and even find a job.
And he even has a job offer to think about already. The Russian-language social network VKontakte, which is similar to Facebook, announced Thursday that he could come and work with them – presumably to help shield the network from NSA snooping.
"We invite Edward to St. Petersburg [where VKontakte is based] and will be delighted if he decides to complete VKontakte's star team of programmers," the organization's founder, Pavel Durov, wrote on his VKontakte page.
Snowden "might be interested in working on protecting the personal data of millions of our users.... Today, Edward Snowden, a person who exposed the crimes of the American special services against citizens of the entire world, has received temporary asylum in Russia. At such moments, you feel pride for our country and sorrow over the course of the USA, a country betraying the principles on which it was built," Mr. Durov added.
He also has an outstanding invitation from the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament, to come and testify about how the spying programs he revealed might impact Russian users of big Internet companies like Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook.
WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization that's been sponsoring Snowden's flight, posted a lengthy statement thanking Russia and trumpeting what it called a "victory in the fight against Obama’s war on whistleblowers. This battle has been won, but the war continues."
It also praised Sarah Harrison, the WikiLeaks official who accompanied Snowden on his June 23 flight from Hong Kong and has remained with him through the 39 days of his stay in Sheremetyevo.
"Ms. Harrison has remained with Mr. Snowden at all times to protect his safety and security, including during his exit from Hong Kong. They departed from the airport together in a taxi and are headed to a secure, confidential place," it said.
In Washington, news of Snowden's asylum grant in Russia was greeted with dismay.
"We see this as an unfortunate development and we are extremely disappointed by it," White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists. He suggested that President Obama's plans to meet with President Vladimir Putin before a G20 summit in St. Petersburg that's barely a month off might be in jeopardy. "We are evaluating the utility of the summit in light of this," news agencies quoted him as saying.
"We made clear both privately and publicly that there was ample legal justification for his expulsion from Russia and return to the United States, that's a discussion we've had with Russia as well as with other countries that might have been considering providing asylum to Mr. Snowden," Mr. Carney added.
Several United States Senators have also warned that the Snowden case could do irreparable harm to the already-frayed relationship between the US and Russia.
However, Mr. Putin's close aide and reputed foreign policy architect Yury Ushakov told journalists he does not expect any serious fallout from the decision.
"This issue is not important enough to affect political relations," the official RIA-Novosti agency quoted Mr. Ushakov as saying.
Alexei Arbatov, a leading Russian foreign policy expert, says he believes the international ill-will surrounding the Snowden case will blow over.
"The Snowden issue might have domestic complications in the US, meaning that opposition will attack Obama [for mishandling the affair]. But on the international level it's just not sufficient reason to make the US and Russia quarrel seriously. I do not believe that the important economic and political issues on the US-Russia bilateral agenda will suffer because of the very questionable actions of this young man," he says.
Kucherena, the lawyer, told journalists that his client needed at least a day to clear his head, but might be available to talk to media as early as Friday.
"Of course, he will come. He is aware that mass media is interested in him. But in this case, the situation is such for now," he said, apparently meaning that his client would not be speaking not anytime soon.
He also contradicted reports that Snowden might have shared some of the secrets he reputedly holds in the four laptop computers he carries with him everywhere.
"I can absolutely say that he did definitely not pass on any documents to anybody here at the Sheremetyevo airport. That is, the documents that were published yesterday are documents that he handed over [to The Guardian] while still in Hong Kong," Kucherena said on Rossiya 24 news television channel.
He was referring to a sweeping exposé published Wednesday in the Guardian, based on documents provided by Snowden about an NSA tool known as XKeyscore, which allegedly enables the agency to scoop up "nearly everything a user does on the Internet."
Snowden has "given his word and promised to stop the whistleblowing activity aimed at United States" and can be trusted to keep it, Kucherena said.
Kucherena, who has been Snowden's main spokesman during the long stay in Sheremetyevo, told journalists his client would undergo a period of "acclimatization," including studying Russian language, law, customs, and literature. The lawyer also said he would remain involved with Snowden in an advisory capacity.
"[Snowden] is the most wanted person on earth and his security will be a priority," Kucherena said. "He will deal with personal security issues and lodging himself. I will just consult him as his lawyer."
Experts say it's likely that Snowden will be kept under tough restraints by Russia's FSB security service in pursuance of President Vladimir Putin's oft-repeated pledge that he will not be allowed to harm US interests while he remains in Russia. That suggests that he may be as isolated from journalists in his new location as he was during the nearly seven weeks he spent hiding out in Sheremetyevo's transit zone.
His release comes just a day after his father appeared for the first time on Russian TV to thank Mr. Putin "for keeping my son safe" and to hope that Russia will take him in and accept him until such time as he can find safe haven somewhere else.
It also comes on the same day a Russian public opinion poll showed that just over half of Russians regard Snowden as a "hero" while just 17 percent were "negative" toward his actions. On the other hand, the poll found that only 43 percent supported giving him asylum in Russia, while 29 percent were against it to some degree.
WikiLeaks quoted Snowden as heading into his new life in Russia defiant and, perhaps, just a little bit jubilant.
"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," Snowden is quoted as saying.