America’s most famous fugitive leaker found a permanent refuge Monday as the government of President Vladimir Putin granted Russian citizenship to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Mr. Snowden fled the U.S. in 2013 after releasing a massive trove of internal NSA documents, including explosive revelations of secret U.S. intelligence data collection and overseas surveillance programs that caused massive diplomatic headaches for the Obama administration.
Russia has refused to extradite Mr. Snowden to the U.S., where prosecutors want to charge him with illegal leaks that they say hurt U.S. national security and put covert U.S. intelligence agents and assets at risk.
Russian officials said the grant — included in a list of 75 foreign nationals given citizenship rights by the Kremlin — came at Mr. Snowden’s request, but it was also a sign that Mr. Putin, beset by reverses in his war in Ukraine and protests at home over a military enlistment drive, still has some cards to play in his clash of wills with the West.
Mr. Snowden’s attorney, Anatoly Kucherena, told the Russian RIA Novosti news service that Mr. Snowden’s American wife, Lindsay Mills, also has applied for Russian citizenship, The Associated Press reported. The couple have had two children since fleeing to Russia.
“After two years of waiting and nearly ten years of exile, a little stability will make a difference for my family,” Mr. Snowden tweeted Monday. “I pray for privacy for them — and for us all.”
Mr. Snowden acknowledged compiling and leaking documents about the NSA’s collection of data passing through the infrastructure of U.S. phone and internet companies. He also released details about the classified U.S. intelligence budget and the extent of American surveillance on foreign officials, including the leaders of U.S.-allied countries such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The State Department had a muted reaction to the news. There was little chance that Mr. Putin’s government would turn over the fugitive given the current geopolitical tensions.
“Our position has not changed. Mr. Snowden should return to the United States, where he should face justice as any other American citizen would,” department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
Mr. Price was one of several commentators to note one irony of the citizenship grant: The 39-year-old Mr. Snowden theoretically now becomes eligible for the mass military mobilization Mr. Putin ordered last week to rebuild the Russian military’s depleted ranks in Ukraine.
Popular resistance to Mr. Putin’s call-up continued Monday, with protests in a number of cities and recruitment centers and a rush of draft-age Russians seeking to flee the country.
“Now that Edward Snowden has been granted full Russian citizenship, I expect he will be on the battlefield in Ukraine fighting for Putin any day now,” remarked Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. “Or could it be that he will be exempt while other Russian citizens are told to fight in a war of aggression on Putin’s behalf?”
Mr. Putin’s “partial mobilization” of 300,000 reservists is supposed to include only those — unlike Mr. Snowden — with military training, but numerous reports say Russia’s military is targeting far more “recruits” than the official order specified.
Mr. Snowden, who did work for the CIA and NSA as a private contractor with access to top-secret data, has been reviled as a traitor to his country and hailed as a whistleblower who ignited a needed global debate over the scope and morality of government surveillance methods in the age of Big Data.
Fleeing arrest after his leaks were made public, Mr. Snowden was marooned in Russia almost by accident in 2013. He was blocked at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport from making a connecting flight from Hong Kong to Cuba after the Obama administration canceled his passport.
He was said to be planning an appeal for asylum with the left-wing government then in power in Ecuador — the government that for years offered refuge in its London embassy to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
After a 40-day standoff at the airport, Mr. Snowden was allowed to leave. He has been living in Russia ever since.
Mr. Snowden has claimed he would be willing to return to the U.S. if guaranteed a fair trial, but he secured a permanent residency in Russia two years ago and announced that he would seek full citizenship.
The Associated Press reported that Mr. Snowden has become a well-known speaker on privacy and intelligence, appearing remotely at many events from Russia. He remains controversial among members of the intelligence community, and current and former officials from both U.S. political parties say he endangered global security by exposing important programs. A U.S. damage assessment of his disclosures is still classified, according to AP.
Mr. Snowden faces charges of unauthorized disclosure of U.S. national security and intelligence information and theft of government property. He could face decades in prison in the U.S. if convicted.
The Justice Department, saying he violated his nondisclosure agreements with intelligence agencies, sued to stop Mr. Snowden from collecting profits on his memoir.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.