Behind the scenes, a flurry of top U.S. officials, acting on the belief that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is still in Russia, have been pressuring the Kremlin to hand over the fugitive, and threatening Russia with retaliation if that demand is not met that could include refusing to honor criminal extradition requests from Moscow.
Several high-level American officials have been in repeated contact with their Russian counterparts since Snowden, age 30, arrived in Moscow Sunday after the Hong Kong government refused to honor a U.S. extradition request and allowed him to board an Aeroflot flight. U.S. government anger is at a fever pitch with the governments of Russia, Hong Kong, and China, which is believed to have played a hand in letting Snowden flee Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous part of the People’s Republic.
State Department officials have promised retaliation for all three governments, but recognize that as of now, Russia is the only one that can still play a helpful role in returning Snowden to the U.S. to face three felony charges filed over the weekend, including two under the Espionage Act.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday during a trip to India that “without question” there would be consequences for China and Russia for not complying with U.S. requests and emphasized that the U.S. is now focusing on Russia.
“They are on notice with respect to our desires,” Kerry said. “It would be deeply troubling if they have adequate notice and notwithstanding that they make a willful decision to ignore that and not live within the standards of the law.
The U.S. has transferred seven prisoners to Russia over the last two years, Kerry said, and the U.S. expects reciprocity. He also took a shot at China's and Russia’s treatment of freedom of speech online.
“I wonder if Mr. Snowden chose China and Russia as assistance in his flight from justice because they are such powerful bastions of Internet freedom,” Kerry said.
In a Monday interview with CNN, Kerry called on Russia directly to hand Snowden over and made his most critical remarks to date about the former intelligence officer and his leaks.
“People may die as a consequence to what this man did,” Kerry said. “It is possible that the United States would be attacked because terrorists may now know how to protect themselves in some way or another that they didn’t know before. This is a very dangerous act.”
A State Department official said Monday that as far as the U.S. government knows, Snowden is still in Russia, and while the State Department is frantically contacting several governments about Snowden, Russia is the primary focus. The State Department is laying out a range of consequences for the Russians if they don’t cooperate, and the Russians seem to be holding Snowden in Moscow while they consider their response to Washington, the official said.
“Certainly they understand our concerns enough that he hasn’t departed Russia yet,” the official said. “Our purpose is in making it clear that this is about law-enforcement cooperation and there are a number of cases of mutual interest.”
The U.S. retaliation could also be applied to areas that have nothing to do with law enforcement, the official said.
“We think there is a real interest for these countries to cooperate on these cases, because there are times when they want our cooperation,” the official said. “There are other aspects of the relationship that could be the area where we decide to respond.”
To drive home that point, several senior officials have reached out to their Russian counterparts over the last 24 hours. FBI Director Robert Mueller has called his Russian counterpart at the FSB twice today, an administration official said Monday. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul, a former senior White House official, have also been working the issue hard with their Russian contacts, the official said.
At Monday’s State Department briefing, spokesman Patrick Ventrell said that U.S. officials were driving home the fact that the U.S. has been cooperating with Russia on extraditing Russian criminals out of the U.S., but he didn’t say outright that such cooperation would be ended if Russia doesn’t turn over Snowden.
“You can tell by the level of engagement that we’ve had they we take this very seriously, and you can be sure the Russians understand that,” Ventrell said.
The State Department has also been in contact with the governments of several other countries including Ecuador and Iceland, two places that have been mentioned as possible asylum destinations for Snowden, warning them not to provide Snowden with safe haven or safe passage to any final destination except for the U.S., Ventrell said.
Ventrell and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney both said that Hong Kong’s decision to let Snowden leave Sunday was a setback to both the U.S.–Hong Kong and the U.S.–China relationship. Both implied that the Chinese central government in Beijing made the call, not the local government in Hong Kong.
“We are just not buying that this was a technical decision by a Hong Kong immigration official. This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant and that decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship,” Carney said Monday. “I’m not going to speculate about the repercussions but the Chinese have emphasized the importance of building mutual trust and we think they have dealt that a serious setback. If we cannot count on them to honor their legal extradition obligations, that is a problem.”
Carney and Ventrell both insisted that the U.S. extradition request for Snowden was delivered in time to allow the Hong Kong government to deny Snowden’s travel to Moscow, and to resolve any technical issues with the request. Carney said that Hong Kong acknowledged the U.S. request on June 17 and didn’t ask for more information until June 21. The U.S. was in the process of responding to that request when Snowden left Hong Kong.
Russia, China, and Hong Kong may also face retaliation from the U.S. Congress, as several lawmakers have lashed out at both the Russian and Chinese leadership over their handling of the issue.
On Monday afternoon, the Senate will vote and likely pass a comprehensive immigration reform package (PDF) that includes a provision changing the law to allow Hong Kong to apply for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, which would make travel from Hong Kong to the U.S. easier.
The State Department ultimately decides which countries can enter the Visa Waiver Program, but the law states that the applicant country “must meet stringent security requirements, including a very low non-immigrant visa rejection rate, reciprocal treatment for U.S. citizens, passports with biometric identifiers, and close bilateral law enforcement cooperation with U.S. authorities,” the Weekly Standard reported.
Nathan Click, a spokesman for Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), who sponsored the amendment making Hong Kong eligible for the Visa Waiver Program, told The Daily Beast Monday that Hong Kong’s path to the Visa Waiver Program is far from assured.
“The fact is that this measure would only allow the State Department and Department of Homeland Security to consider Hong Kong for the Visa Waiver Program,” he said. “Hong Kong would still have to submit to the State Department’s rigorous qualifying process, which requires strong coordination between law-enforcement officials and strict national-security considerations.”