The White House pressed Russia Tuesday to extradite National Security Agency (NSA) leaker Edward Snowden to face espionage charges, despite Moscow’s blunt rejection in a diplomatic face-off threatening recent attempts by the two countries’ presidents to strengthen their ties.
Snowden’s globe-trotting evasion of U.S. authorities already has set back President Barack Obama’s recent attempts to cultivate relations with China.
Relations with both countries have been at the forefront of Obama’s foreign policy agenda this month, underscoring the intertwined interests among these uneasy partners. Obama met just last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland and held an unusual two-day summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in California earlier this month.
Obama has made no known phone calls to Xi since Snowden surfaced in Hong Kong earlier this month, nor has he talked to Putin since Snowden arrived in Russia.
Putin said that because there is no extradition agreement with the U.S., it couldn’t meet the U.S. request for extradition.
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden responded in a statement that the White House doesn’t want Snowden to negatively impact relations with Russia. But she argued Russia has the “clear legal authority” to expel him from a Moscow airport.
“We are asking the Russian government to take action to expel Mr. Snowden without delay and to build upon the strong law enforcement cooperation we have had, particularly since the Boston Marathon bombing,” she said.
Former Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., said it wasn’t clear that Obama’s “charm offensive” with Xi and Putin would matter much on this issue. The U.S. has “very little leverage,” she said, given the broad array of issues on which the Obama administration needs Chinese and Russian cooperation.
“This isn’t happening in a vacuum, and obviously China and Russia know that,” said Harman, who now runs the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
Both the U.S. and China had hailed the Obama-Xi summit as a fresh start to a complex relationship, with the leaders building personal bonds during an hour-long walk through the grounds of the Sunnylands estate. But any easing of tensions appeared to vanish Monday following China’s apparent flouting of U.S. demands that Snowden be returned from semi-autonomous Hong Kong to face espionage charges.
White House spokesman Jay Carney, in unusually harsh language, said China had “unquestionably” damaged its relationship with Washington.
“The Chinese have emphasized the importance of building mutual trust,” Carney said. “We think that they have dealt that effort a serious setback. If we cannot count on them to honor their legal extradition obligations, then there is a problem.”
A similar problem may be looming with Russia, where Snowden arrived Sunday.
During a stop in Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State John Kerry said that while it’s true the United States does not have an extradition treaty with Russia, Moscow should comply with common law practices between countries concerning fugitives. “I would simply appeal for calm and reasonableness,” Kerry said. “We would hope that Russia would not side with someone who is ‘a fugitive’ from justice.’ “
The U.S. has deep economic ties with China and needs the Asian power’s help in persuading North Korea to end its nuclear provocations. The Obama administration also needs Russia’s cooperation in ending the bloodshed in Syria and reducing nuclear stockpiles held by the former Cold War foes.
Members of Congress so far have focused their anger on China and Russia, not on Obama’s inability to get either country to abide by U.S. demands. However, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said in an interview with CNN on Monday that he was starting to wonder why the president hasn’t been “more forceful in dealing with foreign leaders.”
Sen. John McCain, who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential election, echoed that concern on Tuesday, telling CNN, “We’ve got to start dealing with Vladimir Putin for what he is.”
The Arizona Republican called Putin “an old KGB colonel apparatchik” who disdains democracy and said that Putin “continues to stick his thumb in our eye.”
“When you show the world you’re leading from behind, these are the consequences,” McCain said.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton echoed the White House’s frustration with China. “That kind of action is not only detrimental to the U.S.-China relationship but it sets a bad precedent that could unravel the intricate international agreements about how countries respect the laws — and particularly the extradition treaties,” the possible 2016 presidential contender told an audience in Los Angeles.
Snowden fled to Hong Kong after seizing highly classified documents disclosing U.S. surveillance programs that collect vast amounts of U.S. phone and Internet records. He shared the information with two newspapers, The Guardian and the Washington Post. He also told the South China Morning Post that “the NSA does all kinds of things like hack Chinese cellphone companies to steal all of your SMS data.” SMS, or short messaging service, generally means text messaging.
Snowden still has perhaps more than 200 sensitive documents, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said over the weekend.
Hong Kong, a former British colony with a degree of autonomy from mainland China, has an extradition treaty with the U.S. Officials in Hong Kong said a formal U.S. extradition request did not fully comply with its laws, a claim the Justice Department disputes.
The White House made clear it believes the final decision to let Snowden leave for Russia was made by Chinese officials in Beijing.
Russia’s ultimate response to U.S. pressure remains unclear. Putin could still agree to return Snowden to the U.S. But he may also let him stay in Russia or head elsewhere, perhaps to Ecuador or Venezuela — both options certain to earn the ire of the White House.
Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said she expected Putin to take advantage of a “golden opportunity” to publicly defy the White House.
“This is one of those opportunities to score points against the United States that I would be surprised if Russia passed up,” Hill said.