MOSCOW — The world’s most closely watched layover ended Thursday as Russia granted temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the confessed leaker who had been holed up in a Moscow airport’s transit zone since June 23.
Brushing aside U.S. pleas and warnings, Russia allowed Snowden to walk out of the Moscow airport transit zone. The decision, which infuriated U.S. officials, ended nearly six weeks of legal limbo for Snowden, the former intelligence analyst wanted by the United States for leaking details of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs, and opened a new phase of his legal and political odyssey.
Even as his leaks continued with new disclosures from the computer files he downloaded, Snowden, 30, now has legal permission to live — and conceivably work — in Russia for as long as a year, safely out of the reach of U.S. prosecutors. Although some supporters expect him to seek permanent sanctuary elsewhere, possibly in Latin America, the former CIA employee and NSA contract worker now has an international platform to continue defending his actions as a whistle-blower exposing wrongdoing by the U.S. government.
In a statement issued by WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization that has been assisting him since he made his disclosures in June, Snowden thanked Russia for giving him permission to enter the country “in accordance with its laws and international obligations.” He accused the Obama administration of disregarding domestic and international law since his disclosures, but added that “in the end, the law is winning.”
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White House officials indicated Obama was leaning against his plan to meet President Vladimir Putin of Russia in Moscow next month after the summit of the Group of 20 nations in St. Petersburg, although officials stopped short of canceling the meeting. While U.S. and Russian officials acknowledge the need to work together on issues of global importance, such as the reduction of nuclear weapons and the war in Syria, Snowden’s case casts a shadow over relations in the way little has since the days of Cold War defections.
“We are extremely disappointed that the Russian Federation would take this step,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in Washington. He added that the administration was evaluating “the utility of having a summit.”
Members of Congress fumed, calling on Obama to respond firmly. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the affront was a “game changer” for U.S.-Russia relations. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said “Russia has stabbed us in the back.”
Some lawmakers have been calling for the U.S. to boycott next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
And Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said: “Russia’s action … is a slap in the face of all Americans. Now is the time to fundamentally rethink our relationship with Putin’s Russia.”
The United States had demanded that Russia send Snowden, who is facing three felony charges for leaking classified information, home to face prosecution on espionage charges.
Putin made no public comments about Snowden on Thursday. The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said the decision had been made by immigration officials and not by Putin, although it is widely assumed that any decision with such potentially severe diplomatic consequences would require approval from the Kremlin.
“It has nothing to do with the president or his administration,” Peskov said.
By late Thursday, Snowden’s whereabouts remained unclear. He left the international transit zone at Sheremetyevo Airport after his lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, delivered him a passportlike document valid until July 31, 2014, granting him status as a “temporary refugee” in Russia.
Kucherena said he would not disclose Snowden’s whereabouts, although he expected Snowden could make a public appearance soon.
Now that asylum has been granted, Snowden ostensibly has the same rights as anyone in the country, though it wasn’t clear whether his Russian papers could serve as documents that would allow him to travel to other countries.
Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua have offered Snowden asylum. According to Kucherena, he has not officially applied for permanent political asylum in Russia and could simply remain until he is able to fly elsewhere, although the logistics of that have been complicated by intense pressure from the Obama administration on countries to block his transit.
Snowden’s departure from the airport came on the day a new poll showed that most American voters — 55 percent, across party lines — consider Snowden a whistle-blower and not a traitor, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday. Thirty-four percent say he’s a traitor. The finding is unchanged from a July 10 survey, but it shows remarkable consistency in the views of different groups of Americans. Even a majority of Republicans — 51 percent — thought Snowden was a whistle-blower, not a traitor. Democrats favored whistle-blower by 56 percent to 36 percent.
“Most American voters think positively of Edward Snowden, but that was before he accepted asylum in Russia,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
WikiLeaks said Snowden was accompanied by one of its representatives, Sarah Harrison, who appears to have remained with him since his flight began in Hong Kong in June. Kucherena said in television interviews that, while he would continue to act as counsel, he was not involved in arrangements for Snowden’s housing in Russia.
Snowden’s official arrival in Russia was broadly cheered by many in Moscow who have defended his decision to leak the secrets of U.S. surveillance. Ivan Melnikov, a senior Communist Party member of Parliament and a candidate for mayor of Moscow in next month’s election, called him a hero. “Frankly speaking,” Melnikov said, according to the Interfax news agency, he is “like a balm to the hearts of all Russian patriots.”
Russian human-rights advocates said it was ironic that Snowden was taking shelter in a country with a dismal human-rights record. “Having fought for freedom and rights, Snowden has ended up in a country that cracks down on them,” said Lyudmila Alexeyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group, according to the Interfax news agency.