"Mr. Snowden will not be tortured. Torture is unlawful in the United… (Matt Rourke, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — In an effort to break the international standoff over fugitive Edward Snowden, the Obama administration has assured Russian authorities that the American on the lam after revealing top-secret U.S. intelligence operations won't face the death penalty or torture if he returns to the United States.
Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. wrote to his Russian counterpart to say that Snowden's claim to need political asylum in Russia for fear of abuse or execution if returned to the United States was "entirely without merit," the Justice Department disclosed Friday.
Holder told Russian Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov that the former private contractor for the National Security Agency would be accorded the protections of U.S. law, including the right to an attorney and to a public trial by jury.
"The Russians didn’t really seek this assurance, but we didn't want them to take Snowden's claims on these issues at face value and use them as an excuse to grant him asylum, when he should be returned to the U.S. to face justice," said a U.S. official who was familiar with the drafting of the letter but was not authorized to speak publicly about it.
After Snowden fled to Hong Kong from his home and workplace in Honolulu, he leaked to British and U.S. news media details of massive NSA surveillance operations that gather data on millions of citizens' private phone calls, emails and Internet use. The leaks were made public in early June, and he was soon fired by Booz Allen Hamilton from his $122,000-a-year job, charged with three felony counts of espionage and theft. U.S. officials revoked his passport on June 22.
Snowden showed up at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport a day after his travel document was canceled and has been unable to proceed through passport control or buy airline tickets.
Russia's Federal Migration Service was said by Snowden's lawyer to be prepared to provide the fugitive with permission to enter Russian territory and wait there for a formal response to his petition for political asylum. Snowden wrote in a handwritten appeal that he feared he would be tortured during interrogation and possibly sentenced to death if he returned to face prosecution in the United States.
"The charges he faces do not carry that possibility, and the United States would not seek the death penalty even if Mr. Snowden were charged with additional, death penalty-eligible crimes," Holder wrote in the letter to Konovalov dated Tuesday, the day the migration service reprieve was reported, then delayed. "Second, Mr. Snowden will not be tortured. Torture is unlawful in the United States."
Holder also disputed Snowden's claim that he was unable to travel out of Russia. He remains a U.S. citizen, Holder said, and the U.S. government is prepared to provide him with a "limited validity passport" that would allow him to return to the United States.
Holder's letter didn't specifically ask that Snowden be extradited. But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Friday that Russia would not send him back to the United States against his will, the Interfax news agency reported.
"We have never surrendered anyone, and we will never do so," Peskov said.
He added, though, that Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he doesn't want the Snowden affair to damage U.S.-Russian relations.
Putin said this month that Snowden was welcome to stay in Russia, but only if he ceased making disclosures that were detrimental to "our American partners."
Villeneuve reported from Washington and Williams from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Christi Parsons contributed to this report.