Passengers line up for a flight at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. Fugitive… (Sergei Grits, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — President Obama's declaration Thursday that he wouldn't be "scrambling jets" to capture Edward Snowden provided the clearest public signal of how much the administration wants to shield key diplomatic relationships from damage over the case of the fugitive national security leaker.
The administration's efforts at downplaying may also stem, in part, from a desire to manage expectations, since Snowden may continue to elude U.S. custody. But it's clear that in the last several days, the administration has sought to de-escalate confrontations over his flight.
Snowden fled Hong Kong on Sunday to avoid a U.S. extradition request and landed in Russia. Since then, he has apparently been in a transit lounge at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport while seeking asylum in Ecuador.
At the beginning of the week, administration officials, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, were condemning Russia, China and Ecuador as repressive governments, comments that provoked pique, especially in Moscow.
Now, even as American officials continue their effort to get Snowden, Obama has made it clear that the administration wants to limit damage to its relationship with China, its largest trading partner, and Russia, which has leverage over Washington on the Syrian civil war, nuclear arms talks, the Iranian nuclear program and other matters.
U.S. officials also indicated that they would move carefully in trying to dissuade Ecuador from granting Snowden's asylum request.
The Chinese and Russians appear to be of a similar mind. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wants a scheduled September meeting of the Group of 20 nations to underscore Russia's importance in global affairs, has been eager to wind down the controversy. He made that clear Tuesday, saying the Snowden issue was "like shearing a pig — lots of screeching but little wool."
The Chinese showed their desire to put the issue behind them by signaling to Hong Kong authorities their wish that Snowden be allowed to leave for Moscow.
"China took a strategic approach … by getting rid of the problem," said Yukon Huang, a China specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The U.S. move to shift the issue onto a legal track and further away from big-power politics is consistent with the way Washington tries to handle spy cases — with minimal publicity and private diplomacy — experts noted.
Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, made disclosures about large-scale surveillance programs directed both at foreigners and American citizens that have embarrassed the administration. The surveillance of telephone records and the Internet have drawn condemnations from governments, including China's and Russia's, that Washington frequently criticizes for authoritarian tactics and human rights abuses.
Obama said he would like to see Snowden, who faces three felony counts in the United States, in custody. But at a news conference in Senegal, where the president began a three-nation Africa visit, he sought to portray the pursuit of the fugitive as a routine law enforcement issue, far less important than the business the administration is trying to conduct with the two countries Snowden has visited so far in his flight.
In response to a question, Obama said he had not sought to contact Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping personally on the issue because "I shouldn't have to."
"We've got a whole lot of business that we do with China and Russia," he said. "I'm not going to have one case of a suspect who we're trying to extradite suddenly being elevated to the point where I've got to start doing wheeling and dealing and trading on a whole host of other issues, simply to get a guy extradited."
The case was of a kind that is "routinely dealt with between law enforcement officials in various countries," he said. "This is not exceptional from a legal perspective."
He waved off a question about whether he intended to try to block Snowden's departure from Moscow, saying, "I'm not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker."
Obama also suggested that the U.S. has little to fear from further disclosures by Snowden.
"In terms of U.S. interests, the damage was done with respect to the initial leaks," he said. "We don't yet know what other documents he may try to dribble out there," but "on the other hand, what I'm also confident about is that the way we run these programs abides by the laws."
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials say they assume that Russian and Chinese intelligence services have already gotten everything Snowden took from the NSA.
"Everything he had in his head and on devices is absolutely compromised," one former senior counterintelligence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.