QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said on Saturday the United States had asked him not to grant asylum for former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden in a “cordial” telephone conversation he held with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Correa said he vowed to respect Washington’s opinion in evaluating the request. The Andean nation says it cannot begin processing Snowden’s request unless he reaches Ecuador or one of its embassies.
Snowden, who is wanted by the United States for leaking details about U.S. communications surveillance programs, is believed to still be at the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow after leaving Hong Kong.
Praising Biden’s good manners in contrast to “brats” in the U.S. Congress who had threatened to cut Ecuador’s trade benefits over the Snowden issue, Correa said during his weekly television broadcast: “He communicated a very courteous request from the United States that we reject the (asylum) request.”
Biden initiated the phone call, Correa said.
“When he (Snowden) arrives on Ecuadorean soil, if he arrives ... of course, the first opinions we will seek are those of the United States,” Correa said.
A senior White House official travelling with President Barack Obama in Africa on Saturday confirmed the conversation had taken place.
The case has been a major embarrassment for the Obama administration, which is now facing withering criticism around the world for the espionage program known as Prism that Snowden revealed.
A German magazine on Saturday, citing secret documents, reported that the United States bugged European Union offices and gained access to EU internal computer networks, which will likely add to the furore over U.S. spying efforts.
Correa has for years been at loggerheads with Washington on issues ranging from the war on drugs to a long-running environmental dispute with U.S. oil giant Chevron.
A leftist economist who received a doctorate from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, Correa denied he was seeking to perturb relations and said he had “lived the happiest days of my life” in the United States.
But he said the United States has not heeded Ecuador’s request to extradite citizens sought by the law, including bankers he said have already been sentenced.
“There’s a clear double standard here. If the United States is pursuing someone, other countries have to hand them over,” Correa said. “But there are so many fugitives from our justice system (in the United States) ... and they don’t return them.”
Correa said Ecuador’s London consulate issued Snowden an unauthorized safe-passage document, potentially as a result of communication with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is living in the London embassy after receiving asylum last year.
Assange said on Monday that Snowden had received refugee papers from the Ecuador government to secure him safe passage as he fled Hong Kong for Russia. Correa’s government had originally denied this.
A “safe-pass” document published by U.S. Spanish-language media network Univision which circulated widely online purported to offer Snowden safe passage for the purpose of political asylum. The United States has revoked his passport.
“The truth is that the consul (overstepped) his role and will face sanction,” Correa said during the broadcast.
The decision was “probably in communication with Julian Assange and out of desperation that Mr. Snowden was going to be captured, but this was without the authorization of the Ecuadorean government.”
Correa’s critics have in recent days accused him of letting Assange take charge of crucial foreign policy matters.
Assange, who is wanted in Sweden for questioning over sexual assault allegations, has not been able to leave the London embassy because Britain will not give him safe passage.
Snowden’s lack of a valid travel document appears to be one of the primary obstacles to his leaving the transit area of the Moscow international airport. Without a passport, he cannot board a commercial flight or move through airport immigration, according to diplomacy experts.
Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino declined on Thursday to comment on whether Ecuador would send a government plane to pick Snowden up. But Correa has indicated he does not have plans to provide Snowden with transport to an embassy.
Correa scoffed at reports that he himself had been aware that the document was issued or was involved in the decision.
“They think I‘m so dumb that I ordered our consul in London to write a safe passage document for a U.S. citizen travelling from Hong Kong to Russia. That’s simply absurd,” he said.
Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal in Johannesburg; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Vicki Allen and Sandra Maler