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NSA leaker Snowden faces U.S. espionage charges

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. (13839)
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The United States is biding its time in its effort to get fugitive leaker Edward Snowden delivered to its custody, hoping that Russia wearies of him and Ecuador decides against granting him asylum, senior U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Snowden, the former National Security Agency computer contractor who exposed details of U.S. surveillance programs, faces espionage charges if shipped back home. He is currently cooling his heels at Moscow’s international airport, where he arrived Sunday from Hong Kong.

“Time is our friend,” one senior administration official told CNN. “The Russians now just want him gone, and I’m not sure if they care at this point if he goes to a country that might be inclined to send him back.”

The State Department revoked Snowden’s passport after charges were brought last week. Officials in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory, said it needed more information before it could act on a U.S. request to hold him there. WikiLeaks said Snowden flew out of Hong Kong on refugee papers issued by Ecuador, where he has requested asylum, but Ecuador’s deputy foreign minister said Wednesday that his country had provided him no documents.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said his government won’t hand Snowden over to U.S. authorities, but seemed eager to wash his hands of the issue.

“The sooner he selects his final destination point, the better both for us and for himself,” Putin said Tuesday during a visit to Finland.

Snowden has the assistance of WikiLeaks, the organization that facilitates the disclosure of classified information. Ecuador has already granted asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been holed up in the country’s embassy in London for a year after losing a court battle to avoid extradition to Sweden.

Washington has urged countries where Snowden may be headed, including Ecuador, to turn him away. But the senior administration official said Ecuadorian officials appear to be avoiding high-level discussions on the matter. Their ambassador to Washington is out of the country, and their foreign minister is on a trip to Asia.

Speaking in Vietnam this week, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino said his government will consider the U.S. request when it decides on Snowden’s plea for asylum, which the United States considers a sign that the highest levels of the Ecuadorian government have gotten the message. The administration official said the fact that Ecuador is not rushing a decision is the best possible news, since Snowden will remain a hot potato in the Russians’ hands during that time.

U.S.-Ecuadorian ties have been strained during the administration of Ecuador’s current president, Rafael Correa. A leftist ally of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Correa closed an outpost at an Ecuadorian air base that the U.S. military used to conduct anti-drug operations. Washington and Quito expelled each others’ ambassadors in 2011 after an American diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks suggested that Correa was aware of acts of corruption by the police high command, and the United States has criticized recent laws that international observers say limit press freedoms.

The $20 million the United States provides in aid to Ecuador is a relatively small amount, and the administration is holding off on talk of any additional pressure until its government makes a decision on asylum.

“We are not at the point where we are making threats yet,” the official said. “We are reserving the harder line until they know for sure whether the Ecuadorians are willing to take him in.”

Elise Labott and Matt Smith | CNN