MOSCOW (Reuters) - Fugitive former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, breaking weeks of silence, said in Moscow on Friday he was seeking temporary asylum in Russia and had no regrets about spilling U.S. spy secrets.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone on Friday, but appeared to make no headway on Washington’s demand that Moscow send Snowden back to the United States, where he is wanted on espionage charges.
Putin has made clear Russia would not extradite Snowden to the United States.
The disclosures have raised Americans’ concerns about domestic spying and strained relations with some U.S. allies.
Meeting with rights activists summoned to Sheremetyevo airport where he has been camped since late June, Snowden assailed Western nations he said had prevented him getting to Latin America. He said he hoped to stay in Russia until he had “safe passage” there.
The State Department repeated its call on Russia to send Snowden to the United States, saying granting the American fugitive asylum would “raise concerns” and criticising Moscow for giving him a “propaganda platform”.
Snowden has not been seen publicly since he arrived at Sheremetyevo from Hong Kong on June 23 and Russian officials say he has not formally entered the country because he has remained in the airport’s transit zone.
Snowden, 30, who lived with his girlfriend in Hawaii and worked at a National Security Agency facility there before fleeing the country, said he had sacrificed a comfortable life to disclose details of secret surveillance programmes.
“A little over one month ago, I had family, a home in paradise,” Snowden said at the closed-door meeting, footage of which was shown on Russian television and a news website with close ties to Russian law enforcement agencies.
“I also had the capability without any warrant to search for, seize, and read your communications. Anyone’s communications at any time. That is the power to change people’s fates,” he said.
A Kremlin spokesman said Snowden should not harm the interests of the United States if he wants refuge in Russia - a condition initially set by Putin on July 1 and which the Kremlin said prompted Snowden to withdraw an asylum request at the time.
“Snowden is serious about obtaining political asylum in the Russian Federation,” said Vyacheslav Nikonov, a pro-Kremlin lawmaker who attended the meeting that authorities helped organise at an undisclosed location at the airport.
Snowden, who has been offered asylum by Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, asked for help “requesting guarantees of safe passage from the relevant nations in securing my travel to Latin America”. But it was unclear when that might happen, or how.
“He wants to move further on, he wants to move to Latin America - he said it quite clearly,” Tanya Lokshina, deputy head of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.
“But in order to be guaranteed safety here in Russia, the only way for him to go was to file a formal asylum plea.”
South American leaders at a meeting of the Mercosur trade bloc on Friday defended their right to offer asylum to Snowden.
The United States has urged nations not to give him passage to an asylum destination.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, returning from a visit to Russia last week, had to land in Austria after he was denied access to the airspace of several European countries on suspicion Snowden might be on board his plane.
“Some governments in Western European and North American states have demonstrated a willingness to act outside the law, and this behaviour persists today,” Snowden told the activists.
“This unlawful threat makes it impossible for me to travel to Latin America and enjoy the asylum granted there in accordance with our shared rights.”
Snowden’s predicament has thrust him into the hands of Russia as Washington and Moscow are seeking to improve relations that soured over issues including Syria and human rights since Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012.
Putin has made a show of impatience over Snowden’s stay, saying twice since he arrived that he should choose a destination and leave. But it had also become clear that he has no easy route to a safe haven from Moscow.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said it would raise concerns in the U.S.-Russian relationship if Moscow were to accept an asylum request from Snowden.
“However we are not at that point yet. They still have the opportunity to do the right thing and return Mr. Snowden to the United States and that’s what our hope is,” she said.
A White House statement about the Obama-Putin call offered no indication of a breakthrough over Snowden.
“The two leaders noted the importance of U.S.-Russian bilateral relations and discussed a range of security and bilateral issues, including the status of Mr. Edward Snowden and cooperation on counter-terrorism in the lead-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics,” the statement said.
Putin has frequently accused the United States of double standards on human rights and has championed its critics, but he has invited Obama to Russia for a summit in early September and does not want to ruin the chances for that.
Putin’s spokesman repeated earlier conditions that Snowden should stop harming the interests of the United States if he wants asylum.
“As far as we know, he considers himself a defender of human rights and a campaigner for democratic ideals,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Peskov said Snowden should “fully refrain from actions inflicting damage on our American partners and on Russian-American relations”, Interfax news agency reported.
Lawmaker Nikonov said that message had got through.
“I asked him if he was ready to give up his political activity against the United States. He said, ‘Definitely, yes, all this activity was in the past’,” he said. He later said Snowden had submitted the asylum request.
After Snowden’s meeting, pro-Kremlin politicians lined up to cast the American as a rights activist who deserved protection because he could be charged in the United States with espionage, a crime that carries the death penalty.
“There is a really great risk that Edward Snowden is facing this very punishment,” Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of the lower house of parliament, told state TV. “We simply can’t allow this.”
Snowden cast himself in similar terms.
“I did what I believed right and began a campaign to correct this wrongdoing. I did not seek to enrich myself. I did not seek to sell U.S. secrets,” he said.
“That moral decision to tell the public about spying that affects all of us has been costly, but it was the right thing to do and I have no regrets.”
Lokshina, of Human Rights Watch, said U.S. officials asked her to tell Snowden the United States did not see it that way.
“I was contacted on my phone on my way to the airport on behalf of the ambassador and they asked me to relay to Snowden the official position of the U.S. authorities - that he is not a whistleblower, but had broken the law and should be held accountable,” she said. She said she passed on the message.
A senior U.S. official, however, told Reuters: “At no point, did any U.S. government official ask anyone to convey a message to Mr. Snowden. The embassy officer who was in contact with Human Rights Watch did so to explain that we do not consider Mr. Snowden to be a whistleblower - not to convey any message to him.”
After the activists were led through a grey door marked “staff only”, Lokshina said they were put on a bus, driven around until they reached a different part of Sheremetyevo and taken to a room where Snowden was waiting.
Additional reporting by Alessandra Prentice, Anthony Boadle in Brasilia and Steve Holland and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Steve Gutterman, Thomas Grove; and Peter Cooney; Editing by Alison Williams and Sandra Maler