By Isabel Gorst
and Joby Warrick
The Washington Post
MOSCOW — Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to Edward Snowden opened a fresh wound in Moscow’s battered relations with the United States, even as it ended the bizarre two-month odyssey that began when the former National Security Agency contractor leaked details of top-secret U.S. surveillance operations.
Snowden slipped away in a taxi on Thursday from the Moscow airport that had been his home since June 23, bearing a Russian refugee certificate granting him permission to stay in the country for one year. It was a forceful rebuff to a series of private and public appeals by U.S. officials to have Snowden returned to the United States, where he faces espionage charges.
Obama administration officials denounced the decision to protect Snowden and hinted of repercussions, perhaps including the cancellation of a planned summit between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Reaction from Congress was far harsher, with key lawmakers from both sides calling for a fundamental rethinking of relations with Moscow.
“Russia has stabbed us in the back,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “Each day that Mr. Snowden is allowed to roam free is another twist of the knife.”
For Snowden, 30, the asylum decision was a reprieve from extradition and the prospect of a trial in the United States. But his refugee status opens the possibility of direct meetings between him and U.S. officials to discuss the treatment he could face if he returned home voluntarily.
The former technical contractor and admitted leaker of NSA documents has signaled that he intends to stay.
One of his attorneys said Snowden has discussed taking language classes and perhaps finding work in Russia, a country that has a history of harshly repressing its government critics as well as a record of mistreating other U.S. citizens who have sought asylum there.
Indeed, one of the few bright spots for U.S. officials was that Snowden’s behavior — including his ability to release additional secrets — is certain to be tightly controlled by his new hosts, in contrast with the freedoms he may have had in one of the Latin American countries that offered him asylum, former U.S. officials and Russia experts said.
“He will likely live under very restricted conditions with a lot of surveillance,” said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russian and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “If he steps out of line, Putin will crush him like a bug.”
The day’s developments began with an announcement by Anatoly Kucherena, an attorney for Snowden, that Russian authorities had granted a request for temporary refugee status. The approval allows the former Maryland resident to live and work in Russia while his application for permanent political asylum is considered. Until Thursday, Snowden had been in limbo in the transit area of Moscow’s sprawling Sheremetyevo International Airport, with his exact whereabouts known only to his attorneys and a handful of Russian officials.
Kucherena told the state broadcaster Russia 24 that Snowden got in an airport taxi “for a secure location” about 3:30 p.m. local time, eluding reporters who have camped at the airport since he arrived June 23 on a flight from Hong Kong. The lawyer described Snowden as “the most wanted man on the planet” and said he needed “time to adapt to Russian realities.”
Snowden issued a brief statement through the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks, which has provided him with legal and logistical support since he identified himself as the person behind a series of news leaks about the NSA’s widespread and highly secretive surveillance efforts.
“Over the past eight weeks, we have seen the Obama administration show no respect for international or domestic law, but in the end the law is winning,” Snowden was quoted as saying. “I thank the Russian Federation for granting me asylum in accordance with its laws and international obligations.”
In Washington, the reaction from the White House was severe. In a news briefing dominated by questions about Snowden, press secretary Jay Carney said the administration is “extremely disappointed that the Russian government would take this step” despite “ample legal justification” for returning Snowden to the United States.
“This move by the Russian government undermines a long-standing record of law enforcement cooperation” that had “recently been on the upswing” since the Boston Marathon bombings in April, he said.
Carney insisted that Snowden “is not a dissident,” or a whistleblower, but a suspect in a criminal case with serious national security implications. He noted that Snowden “has been … in possession of classified information in China and in Russia,” which is “both a huge risk and a violation” of U.S. law.
Asked whether Obama would attend the September summit in Moscow, Carney said, “Obviously this is not a positive development … and we are evaluating the utility of the summit.”
Across town, there was a blistering response on Capitol Hill and calls for retaliatory measures certain to infuriate the Kremlin. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., long one of the Senate’s leading critics of Moscow, blasted the asylum decision as “a slap in the face of all Americans” and called on the administration to turn up the pressure on Moscow on a variety of fronts, including a renewed push for NATO expansion and new missile-defense programs in Europe.
“Now is the time to fundamentally rethink our relationship with Putin’s Russia,” McCain said in a statement released by his office. “We need to deal with the Russia that is, not the Russia we might wish for. We cannot allow today’s action by Putin to stand without serious repercussions.”
Russian officials sought to play down the asylum issue. Yuri Ushakov, a Kremlin official, told reporters Thursday that the “relatively insignificant case” of Snowden would not harm relations between Russia and the United States. In comments before the White House news conference, he said he saw no sign that Obama would cancel his planned trip to Moscow in September.
While Snowden was making his way to his new secret quarters, his father was reportedly planning to travel to Russia to meet with him.
“I am so thankful to the Russian nation and President Vladimir Putin,” Lon Snowden told Russian television.