By Jill Dougherty
Edward Snowden spoke out for the first time since fleeing to Moscow, according to a statement attributed to him that was released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
In it, he attacked President Barack Obama and vowed to continue leaking information on government collection of data.
“This kind of deception from a world leader is not justice, and neither is the extralegal penalty of exile,” Snowden said, referring to Obama. “These are the old, bad tools of political aggression. Their purpose is to frighten, not me, but those who would come after me.”
The U.S. government, he claimed, is “using citizenship as a weapon,” revoking his passport and, he claimed, “leaving me a stateless person.”
The State Department says Snowden is not stateless, noting that he is still a U.S. citizen even though his passport has been revoked.
The United States, officials say, are prepared to issue him a one-way travel document back to the United States to face prosecution on espionage charges.
Obama administration officials deny the case is political.
“Indeed it is not,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Monday, before Snowden’s statement emerged.
“These are serious crimes, serious violations of his obligations … and so our position is that he needs to face a free and fair trial and not be a fugitive. He needs to face justice here in the United States, just as any other U.S. citizen would need to do accused of similar crimes,” Ventrell said.
There was confusion on Monday over whether Snowden, who initially asked Ecuador for asylum, was now seeking it from the Russia.
In a letter to Ecuador reported by Reuters, Snowden said from the Moscow airport that the United States was “illegally persecuting him” for revealing its electronic surveillance program and thanked Ecuador for considering his request.
But two Russian news agencies closely allied with the Russian government reported on Monday that Snowden was asking for asylum in Moscow.
The agencies said Wikileaks lawyer Sarah Harrison, who accompanied Snowden when he fled Hong Kong for Moscow, had contacted the consular station of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and delivered the request.
Shortly after those reports, Interfax news agency flashed the news that the head of Russia’s Federal Migration Service was denying that Snowden had requested asylum.
The Kremlin shed no light on the contradiction.
"I can't answer this question and am not ready to comment on this at the moment," President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Interfax. "I don't have any information."
In another wrinkle, Putin himself weighed in.
He said at a news conference that if Snowden “wants to stay here, there is one condition: he has to stop his work aimed at damaging our U.S. partners, no matter how strange this sounds coming from my lips.”
Sounding like a man who wanted Snowden off his hands, Putin said the admitted leaker of National Security Agency secrets “feels like a human rights activist and campaigner for human rights, and judging by everything, he does not intend to stop such work, so he has to choose a country of stay and move there. When this will happen, I do not know, unfortunately.”
Putin even compared Snowden to the iconic Russian dissident and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov. “(Snowden) feels like a fighter for human rights, a new dissident to a certain degree, something like Sakharov, well, probably, of a different scale,” Putin said.
But the Russian leader shot down any idea that Moscow would hand over Snowden to the United States.
"Russia never extradites anyone anywhere and is not going to extradite anyone,” he said. “No one ever extradites anyone to us. You probably know this well, too. At best, we have exchanged our foreign intelligence employees for those detained, arrested and sentenced by court in Russia.”
Putin insisted that Snowden “is not our agent” and Moscow is not working with him.
“He is a free man in this regard," Putin said.
But Putin indirectly criticized the United States, noting that Russia’s human rights organizations “said they were opposed to extraditing him to the country where death penalty is possible,” adding “But all this is a separate topic.”
A number of Russian legislators have urged Moscow to give Snowden asylum, noting that he has revealed information that the United States allegedly is violating the civil rights of Americans.
“To be honest, I can't see any problem there. If the problem is hysterics from the United States, they ought to remember that, historically speaking, granting political asylum to figures such as Snowden is normal historical practice, and there's no reason for Russia be embarrassed and cop out,” Interfax news agency quoted a leading Communist legislator, Ivan Melnikov, as saying.