Acknowledging that he’s trapped in a Moscow airport by the ability of the United States and its European allies to force to the ground nearly any aircraft he boards, fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden asked Russia on Friday to grant him temporary asylum, promising, apparently, that he was finished leaking information about U.S. government programs.
In a meeting with human rights activists at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, a partial video and transcript of which were released later, Snowden said he had no regrets about leaking classified documents that revealed secret U.S. government programs to gather information on hundreds of millions of Americans’ cellphone and Internet accounts.
“A little over one month ago, I had family, a home in paradise, and I lived in great comfort,” he said, reading a statement. “I also had the capability without any warrant to search for, seize and read your communications. Anyone’s communications at any time. That is the power to change people’s fates.”
“Accordingly, I did what I believed right and began a campaign to correct this wrongdoing,” he said. “That moral decision to tell the public about spying that affects all of us has been costly, but it was the right thing to do and I have no regrets.”
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Russian President Vladimir Putin has said previously that his country would grant Snowden asylum only if he agreed to stop doing harm to the United States, and some of those in attendance said Snowden had indicated he was willing to accept that condition.
Genri Reznik, a prominent Russian lawyer who attended the meeting, said Snowden “promised that he would not act to harm the United States,” and a Russian legislator who was also there, Vyacheslav Nikonov, offered a similar assessment.
"He said he was informed of this condition and that he can easily accept it. He does not intend to damage the United States’ interests, given that he is a patriot of his country," Nikonov said.
But whether that would stop stories about the U.S. programs was uncertain. Glenn Greenwald, a journalist for The Guardian newspaper, has promised more revelations based on hundreds of documents Snowden already has given him, and Julian Assange, the editor of the WikiLeaks website, whose organization is advising Snowden, told ABC News two weeks ago that steps had been taken to make certain Snowden couldn’t be pressured to stop what Assange called “the publication process.”
Neither Greenwald nor Assange responded to requests for comment.
President Barack Obama was expected to urge Putin in a phone call later Friday to expel Snowden to a country where he could be extradited to the United States, and it was clear that the United States planned no letup in its efforts to see Snowden returned to the country.
According to an account of the meeting published on WikiLeaks’ website, the U.S. ambassador to Russia phoned a representative of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch as the representative was on her way to the airport meeting and told her to pass along the message that “the U.S. government does not categorize Mr. Snowden as a whistle-blower and that he has broken United States law.”
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney took a similar line, noting that Snowden had been charged with three felonies for leaking classified documents. He called those "very serious crimes” and added that “every aspect of the United States’ system of justice is available to him upon his return to the U.S. to face those charges."
"Mr. Snowden is not a human rights activist or a dissident,” Carney said. “He is accused of leaking classified information, has been charged with three felony accounts and should be returned to the United States, where he will be accorded full due process.”
Friday’s video, which showed Snowden seated next to an Assange assistant, Sarah Harrison, was the first sighting of him since he arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong on June 23. He appeared thin and wore a checked short-sleeve shirt.
On the video, he was interrupted repeatedly by airport announcements. Others in the video called the interruptions annoying, but Snowden only smiled and said he’d grown used to them after three weeks of living in the airport.
Asylum, even temporary, in Russia wasn’t Snowden’s plan when he fled Hong Kong. At the time, he was booked to travel from Moscow to Havana, where he presumably would have caught a plane to Ecuador, which had indicated at the time that it was amenable to granting him asylum. It’s allowed Assange to live in its embassy in London for more than a year to avoid being sent to Sweden for questioning in a rape investigation.
But before Snowden could make his Havana connection, the United States revoked his passport and Ecuador withdrew the safe-conduct pass he’d used to leave Hong Kong, saying it had been issued by a consular official in contravention to Ecuadorean law. Without a travel document or a Russian visa, Snowden had no way to travel outside the transit area for passengers waiting to catch other flights.
Snowden’s dilemma become clear last week, when France, Italy, Portugal and Spain refused to allow Bolivian President Evo Morales’ official jet to overfly their territory on its way from Moscow to La Paz after it was rumored that Snowden might be aboard. The plane ultimately landed in Austria, where Morales was delayed nearly 13 hours until Spanish officials were satisfied that Snowden wasn’t aboard and the president was allowed to fly on to a refueling stop in the Canary Islands before heading home across the Atlantic Ocean.
Snowden said that incident had confirmed that he would be unable to accept asylum requests from the three countries that have said publicly that he was welcome: Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela. He called the U.S. actions to corral him illegal.
“This unlawful threat makes it impossible for me to travel to Latin America and enjoy the asylum granted there in accordance with our shared rights,” Snowden said.
Laure Mandeville, chief U.S. correspondent for the French newspaper Le Figaro and the author of two books on Russia, said the irony of Snowden seeking asylum in Moscow couldn’t be overlooked.
“You get the sense that he is trapped in a game that is much bigger than he is,” she said. “He seems to see himself as a 21st-century Robin Hood, exposing a dangerous trend to protect the people, but he’s now dealing with a nation with an absolute lack of concern for that privacy.”
Still, the powerful speaker of the Russian lower house of Parliament, Sergei Naryshkin, told state television that Snowden should be granted asylum as a “defender of human rights.”
In his statement, posted on the WikiLeaks website, Snowden made it clear that he’s willing to go to any place that will have him.
“I announce today my formal acceptance of all offers of support or asylum I have been extended and all others that may be offered in the future,” he said.
He defended his revelations about the U.S. surveillance programs, charging that they violated the Fourth and Fifth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as internationally accepted human rights. He called U.S. spying “massive, pervasive.” He said the Obama administration’s defense that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had approved the programs was invalid.
“While the U.S. Constitution marks these programs as illegal, my government argues that secret court rulings, which the world is not permitted to see, somehow legitimize an illegal affair,” he said. “These rulings simply corrupt the most basic notion of justice – that it must be seen to be done. The immoral cannot be made moral through the use of secret law.”
Snowden cited a principle from the Nuremberg trials in defending his actions, “Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore, individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring.”
He added: “Accordingly, I did what I believed right and began a campaign to correct this wrongdoing. I did not seek to enrich myself. I did not seek to sell U.S. secrets. I did not partner with any foreign government to guarantee my safety. Instead, I took what I knew to the public, so what affects all of us can be discussed by all of us in the light of day, and I asked the world for justice.”
Snowden’s description of his asylum in Russia as temporary might indicate that it may be intended primarily to allow him to leave the airport and visit the embassies of the countries that have said he’d be granted asylum. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa have said Snowden’s requests for asylum couldn’t be formally considered until he was able to reach their national territory, a condition that would be met by visiting an embassy.
Lesley Clark in Washington and special correspondent Claudia Himmelreich in Berlin contributed to this story.