By Stuart Williams | AFP
MOSCOW, Russia, 2 August 2013
Fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden stepped out of the Moscow airport where he was marooned for over five weeks, after Russia granted him one year’s asylum, sparking fury in Washington.
Snowden slipped out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in a cloak-and-dagger operation Thursday overseen by his Russian lawyer but unnoticed by the media hordes trying to follow his every move.
The White House said it was “extremely disappointed” that Moscow had given the former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor asylum and would now review the need for a US-Russia summit in September.
Snowden, 30, is wanted on felony charges by the United States after leaking sensational details of vast US surveillance programmes, but Russia has refused to extradite him.
The fugitive was whisked away in a taxi to an undisclosed location, leaving his lawyer to reveal that he had received temporary asylum in Russia.
“Snowden has left Sheremetyevo airport. He has just been given a certificate that he has been awarded temporary asylum in Russia for one year,” lawyer Anatoly Kucherena told AFP.
A spokeswoman for Sheremetyevo confirmed he had left the airport after 2:00 pm (1000 GMT). A grainy still image broadcast by Rossiya 24 television showed a young man with a rucksack — apparently Snowden — about to get into a car outside the airport.
In a statement released by the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy website, Snowden thanked Russia for giving him asylum and slammed the administration of US President Barack Obama for having “no respect” for international or domestic law.
“But in the end the law is winning,” Snowden said.
Kucherena, who had held several meetings with Snowden and helped him make his asylum application on 16 July, added his new place of residence would be kept secret for security reasons.
“His location is not being made public for security reasons since he is the most pursued man on the planet. He himself will decide where he will go,” Kucherena said, adding Snowden was now in a “safe place”.
Interviewed by Rossiya 24 television, Kucherena held up a scanned copy of Snowden’s asylum certificate. It was issued on 31 July, valid until July 31 of 2014, and complete with his fingerprint.
Kucherena said Snowden would eventually emerge into public view and give media interviews but that the fugitive first required an “adaptation course” after so long in the transit zone.
Unspecified “American friends” would assist with the fugitive’s security in Russia, he added.
Meanwhile, the founder of Russia’s most popular social network VKontakte — 28-year-old Pavel Durov — offered Snowden a job as a programmer.
Snowden has been staying in the transit zone of the Sheremetyevo airport north of Moscow since he flew in from Hong Kong on 23 June. Until now, he had never formally crossed the Russian border.
Russia’s decision to award Snowden asylum status came two days after US soldier Bradley Manning was convicted of espionage for passing US secrets to WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks, which has supported Snowden, said on Twitter he was still “under the care” of WikiLeaks British staffer Sarah Harrison who flew in with him from Hong Kong and is believed to have been with him ever since.
The White House warned the decision could prompt Obama to cancel a planned visit to Moscow in September for talks with President Vladimir Putin ahead of the Saint Petersburg G20 summit.
“We’re extremely disappointed,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. “We’re evaluating the utility of a summit in light of this.”
“This move by the Russian government undermines a long-standing record of law enforcement cooperation,” he added.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that a meeting of foreign and defence ministers could also be scrapped.
But she also stressed areas of recent cooperation, adding that Washington and Moscow have “both been very clear that this is an example of something that we want to treat separately, that we don’t want it to adversely affect the whole relationship.”
Obama himself declined to comment when pressed by reporters in an Oval Office briefing.
Robert Menendez, chairman of the powerful US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described the asylum as a “setback” for US-Russia relations.
“Edward Snowden is a fugitive who belongs in a United States courtroom, not a free man deserving of asylum in Russia,” he said.
But Putin’s foreign policy advisor Yury Ushakov rapidly sought to limit the potential diplomatic damage.
“This situation is rather insignificant and should not influence political relations between Russia and the US,” Ushakov said.
The Russian strongman has so far made no comment. As the news of Snowden’s flight from the airport broke, Putin was holding a meeting on military cooperation with the visiting president of Tajikistan.
Analyst Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, recommended a moderate response from the US.
“I’m not sure that pushing back really hard is going to help,” said Pifer, a former ambassador to Ukraine.
“We don’t know what motivated this particular decision by the Russians now, but Putin has shown that he reacts very badly to threats.”