Airport police guard an entrance to the transit area of Sheremetyevo International… (Sergei Ilnitsky, European…)
MOSCOW — Edward Snowden hasn't budged from the transit area of a Moscow airport, but his search for political asylum has come full circle.
The former contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency, who revealed Washington's secret efforts to track international telephone and Internet communications, called Russian human rights activists and lawyers to Sheremetyevo International Airport on Friday and asked them for help gaining asylum in Russia — at least for now.
The request reflects the tight spot Snowden is in almost three weeks after arriving in Moscow from Hong Kong, where he originally fled after leaving the United States. It puts the focus back on Russian President Vladimir Putin, and threatens to worsen already tense relations between Moscow and the United States, which has demanded Snowden's return.
Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have indicated they will consider asylum requests from Snowden. But the logistics of traveling from Moscow to Latin America are daunting, and it's unclear whether any concrete planning has even begun.
"He is in a situation with no way out," said lawyer Alexander Kucherena, who was among those meeting with Snowden on Friday. "He has no passport and can travel nowhere; he has no visa."
If he receives asylum in Russia, Snowden can apply for citizenship in five years, said Kucherena, who added that he would help with the paperwork. The final decision will be made by Putin, he said.
The White House reacted angrily to Snowden's meeting Friday, accusing Russia of providing him with a "propaganda platform." White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said allowing the meeting ran "counter to the Russian government's previous declaration of Russian neutrality," and to its assertions that it had no control over his presence in the transit area of the airport.
President Obama spoke Friday by telephone with Putin on a number of issues, including the status of Snowden, the White House said. It did not provide details.
The meeting with Snowden also put organizations that regularly accuse the Russian government of human rights abuses in the position of being asked to serve as intermediary to the Kremlin on his behalf.
Human rights activist Tanya Lokshina, who attended the meeting with Snowden, said he told them asylum in Russia was the only option he saw that would provide for his security.
"Basically he asked us to help him on two issues: first to petition for his request for asylum to Putin, at least until he could travel to Latin America," said Lokshina, director of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office. "Secondly, he would like us to appeal to the governments of the United States and countries of the European Union not to interfere with his asylum-seeking process."
She quoted Snowden as saying that it would be easy for him to comply with Putin's demand that he stop leaking information harmful to the U.S. "I didn't do any damage to the United States," she quoted Snowden as saying.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that Snowden's request for asylum should be treated fairly by Russia or any other country to which he might apply.
Russian officials said last week that Snowden had withdrawn an earlier request for asylum because of Putin's demand. They did not comment Friday on the new request. But some commentators said the involvement of human rights organizations would be a convenient way for Russian authorities to justify keeping him in the country.
"Putin may dislike and even despise him for what he is, a traitor in his eyes, but he won't let Snowden out of his hands," said Alexander Ryklin, editor of the online Daily Journal.
Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of the lower house of Russia's parliament, told the Rossiya-24 news network that the request for asylum should be granted.
"I consider Edward Snowden a human rights activist struggling for the rights of millions and millions of people in the entire world," Naryshkin said.
Igor Korotchenko, editor in chief of the journal National Defense, predicted Snowden would receive asylum.
"I think his chances to get asylum in Russia are 99%, especially with the backing that Russian human rights activists appear to be inclined to render," he said. "Besides, he promised today that he would stop activities damaging the prestige of the CIA and NSA."
But the leaks have continued even as Snowden has been holed up at the airport. On Sunday, the front page of Brazil's O Globo newspaper carried a report by Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has collaborated with Snowden. The report provided details of alleged spying in Brazil and other Latin American countries, including Mexico and Colombia.
Brazil demanded clarification from U.S. officials. The news filled front pages of Mexican newspapers and much of the programming on radio talk shows. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said that if the reports were true, the activity was "totally unacceptable."