- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2013

Russia granted temporary asylum Thursday to fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, prompting President Obama to threaten boycotting a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and raising criticism in Congress that the administration’s “reset” with Moscow has failed.

Five weeks after Mr. Snowden sought refuge in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, Russian authorities granted him sanctuary for one year, allowing the former spy agency contractor to slip away quietly. He was driven from the airport in a car almost unnoticed, and hours later was offered a job as a programmer for Russia’s top social networking site.

Mr. Snowden’s escape was a personal blow to Mr. Obama, who had spoken by phone with Mr. Putin in recent weeks to appeal for the fugitive’s return to face justice in the U.S.

Some Republicans said it was time for Mr. Obama to reconsider his administration’s “reset” with the Kremlin, initiated with fanfare during the tenure of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“Now is the time to fundamentally rethink our relationship with Putin’s Russia,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said in a joint statement. They called on the Obama administration to push for expanded missile defense programs in Europe and to “move expeditiously on another round of NATO expansion, including the Republic of Georgia,” which Russia invaded several years ago.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike said the move was a serious blow to U.S.-Moscow relations and demanded Mr. Snowden’s return. Some Republicans said Mr. Putin was poking a finger in Mr. Obama’s eye.

The “action by the Russian government could not be more provocative and is a sign of Vladimir Putin’s clear lack of respect for President Obama,” said Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham, calling it a “deliberate effort to embarrass the United States.”

“We need to deal with the Russia that is, not the Russia we might wish for,” they said. “We cannot allow today’s action by Putin to stand without serious repercussions.”

The White House, which wants Mr. Snowden brought back to the U.S. to face trial for leaking secrets about government surveillance programs, responded to the development by warning that Mr. Obama might cancel a one-on-one summit with Mr. Putin scheduled for September in Moscow.

“We see this as an unfortunate development, and we are extremely disappointed by it,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “We are evaluating the utility of the summit.”

Stung by Russia’s action, the White House nonetheless defended its decision to try to thaw relations with Moscow during Mr. Obama’s presidency.

“It is a simple fact that the so-called reset in our relations with Russia produced positive benefits for American national security and for the American people,” Mr. Carney said. “They’ve produced cooperation from Russia on the transit of supplies and materiel to our troops in Afghanistan. They — it provided cooperation with Russia in dealing with Iran. It provided cooperation with Russia that led to the New START treaty.”

Mr. Obama was even more circumspect, declining several times to answer reporters’ questions about Mr. Snowden during a meeting Thursday afternoon in the Oval Office with the president of Yemen.

“Thank you” was all he said, signaling for reporters to leave the room.

From his new temporary home, the fugitive taunted the Obama administration.

“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,” Mr. Snowden was quoted as saying by the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy group, which has assisted him. “I thank the Russian Federation for granting me asylum in accordance with its laws and international obligations.”

Russia’s top social networking site, Vkontakte, promptly offered the former intelligence contractor a job.

“We invite Edward Snowden to Petersburg and will be happy if he decides to join the star team of programmers at Vkontakte,” said Pavel Durov, one of the founders of the St. Petersburg-based answer to Facebook.

Mr. Snowden’s temporary asylum papers allow him to work in Russia, said Anatoly Kucherena, a lawyer close to Russian authorities who has been assisting the American.

Russia took action the same day that Mr. Obama met at the White House with lawmakers concerned about the widespread and secret authority granted to government spy agencies under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The meeting was a response in part to the revelations publicized by Mr. Snowden.

On Capitol Hill, Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Tom Udall of New Mexico introduced legislation to rein in the authority of the secret FISA court. Their two bills would create a special advocate with the power to argue in the FISA courts on behalf of the public’s right to privacy, and would reform how judges are appointed to the FISA courts to ensure that the court is “geographically and ideologically diverse.”

“This court must be reformed to include an adversarial process where arguments for greater privacy protections can be offered alongside the government’s arguments for greater surveillance powers,” Mr. Wyden said.

Seeking to avoid U.S. prosecution, Mr. Snowden arrived in Moscow on a flight from Hong Kong on June 23 and had been stuck in the transit zone of the airport ever since. With his temporary freedom Thursday, he received refugee documents.

The spat over Mr. Snowden’s fate has added to tensions between Russia and the U.S., which are at loggerheads over defense and human rights issues such as the bloody war in Syria, where the Kremlin-allied regime has used chemical weapons.

Talks next week between Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and their Russian counterparts are now under threat, a U.S. official told Reuters news agency, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said Mr. Obama should try to move the Group of 20 summit, scheduled for St. Petersburg in September, as a result of the Russian decision.

Russia has stabbed us in the back,” Mr. Schumer said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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