President Obama said Thursday that he had not yet spoken to Chinese President Xi Jinping or Russian President Vladimir Putin about the U.S. request to extradite confessed NSA leaker Edward Snowden, even though he is concerned that the fugitive might reveal more top-secret information about U.S. surveillance programs.
Speaking in Senegal at the start of a weeklong African tour, Mr. Obama said normal legal channels should be sufficient to handle Washington’s request that Mr. Snowden, who left Hong Kong for Russia last weekend, be returned.
“I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker,” Mr. Obama said. “I have not called President Xi personally or President Putin personally and the reason is … No. 1, I shouldn’t have to.
“No. 2, we’ve got a whole lot of business that we do with China and Russia, and I’m not going to have one case of a suspect who we’re trying to extradite suddenly being elevated to the point where I’ve got to start doing wheeling and dealing and trading on a whole host of other issues,” Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Snowden, who turned 30 last week, has become an embarrassment for the Obama administration after he leaked details of classified government surveillance programs.
While Mr. Obama sought to convey that he has bigger issues to handle than Mr. Snowden, he also acknowledged that the fugitive may have more classified information to reveal.
“I continue to be concerned about the other documents that he may have,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s part of the reason why we’d like to have Mr. Snowden in custody.”
The Ecuadorean government Thursday said a refugee travel document issued to Mr. Snowden is unauthorized and invalid, which likely explains why Mr. Snowden, whose U.S. passport has been revoked, is approaching his sixth day in the transit lounge at Moscow airport.
“The government of Ecuador has not authorized the issuance of any safe pass or refugee documents that allow Mr. Snowden to travel to our country,” Betty Tola, Ecuador’s secretary of political affairs, told reporters in Quito.
Mr. Snowden’s U.S. passport was revoked Saturday — as soon as the State Department learned he had been indicted by U.S. prosecutors on espionage charges. And while he was allowed Sunday to leave Hong Kong by authorities there, the lack of a valid travel document will have complicated his onward travel.
Russian officials have said Mr. Snowden has not been admitted to their country, but remains in the transit area of the airport. He and his traveling companion, a legal researcher from the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, were booked on a flight to Cuba on Monday, but did not board.
Russia doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the U.S., but Mr. Obama said that shouldn’t matter in this case.
“You don’t have to have an extradition treaty to resolve some of these issues,” Mr. Obama said. “There have been some useful conversations that have taken place between the United States’ government and the Russian government, and my continued expectation is that Russia or other countries that have talked about potentially providing Mr. Snowden asylum recognize that they are part of an international community and that they should be abiding by international law. And we’ll continue to press them as hard as we can to make sure that they do so.”