Not even a week ago, President Obama was at the Berlin Wall vowing to scale back the U.S. arsenal in good faith that Moscow would follow suit in “negotiated cuts.”
Before that, Obama was meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Palm Springs for a bilateral sit-down that he confidently branded as a positive step forward in U.S.-China relations.
Buoyed by NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s revelations of U.S. intelligence activities and after reportedly milking the hard drives of four laptops he carried into his Hong Kong hotel, the Chinese government defied a Washington extradition request and let Snowden leave the former British territory.
Once safely at the airport in Moscow, his U.S. passport revoked, Snowden had cover from Russia as he obtained financial and legal assistance from WikiLeaks and petitioned Ecuador for asylum.
Even if the Ecuador claim is intended to throw pursuers off his trail, any number of countries less than friendly with the Obama administration may be lining up to give the former NSA contractor safe haven. Considering Snowden was charged under the Espionage Act, there are enough political loopholes in extradition treaties to ensure the administration will have a hard time getting him back.
And considering these disastrous turns for a president who declared first-term success in improving America’s image across the globe while resetting relations with old foes, America’s superpower image has taken a super hit with these Snowden snubs.
“We understand that he departed Hong Kong yesterday and that he arrived in Russia. Beyond that, I would refer you with regards to his whereabouts to Russian authorities,” a testy Jay Carney told reporters at the White House briefing today.
“I would say that we are, obviously, in conversations, and that we are working with them or discussing with them and — or rather, expecting them to look at the options available to them to expel Mr. Snowden back to the United States to face justice for the crimes with which he is charged,” Carney continued.
On Hong Kong, Carney gave a lengthy explanation of contacts the U.S. had with the special administrative region of China regarding the provisional arrest request.
“On June 17th, Hong Kong authorities acknowledged receipt of our request. Despite repeated inquiries, Hong Kong authorities did not respond with any request for additional documents or information, stating only that the matter was under review and refusing to elaborate. On June 21, Hong Kong authorities requested additional information concerning the U.S. charges and evidence. The U.S. had been in communication about these inquiries and we were in the process of responding to the request when we learned that Hong Kong authorities have allowed the fugitive to leave Hong Kong,” the press secretary said.
“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.”
Give past capitulations, the main question hanging in the air was what standing the U.S. has to express said displeasure with China and Russia in any meaningful way. Carney had “no presidential communications to report out,” indicating Obama had not intervened with his counterparts at the presidential level.
“But, obviously, we are communicating with our counterparts at the appropriate levels,” Carney added.
When pressed repeatedly for more information about what the U.S. has done and what actions it might be willing to take — would the U.S. force a plane carrying Snowden to land? — Carney referred back to his prepared statements about Washington’s outrage.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas) said “a president that can talk more about diplomacy and maybe flex some muscles should.”
“This comes on the heels of the president’s trip to China and Russia. And look at the amount of respect that these two countries are paying to this president,” he added.
McCaul said at this point he could see using “a lot of legal pressure, a lot of economic, a lot of trade pressures” to get Snowden returned. “I think the only thing other than that that we could possibly do would be some sort of rendition, which I think would be very controversial.”
Other lawmakers tried dumping guilt on Russia. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) fired off a letter to Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak today urging Moscow “to apprehend [Snowden] and turn him over to United States authorities immediately.”
“The Snowden case is an important test of the ‘reset’ in relations between our two countries,” Graham wrote. “Mr. Snowden’s own statements have made clear his guilt. If our two nations are to have a constructive relationship moving forward, Russian cooperation in this matter is essential.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) urged Russia to turn over Snowden in a statement today.
“Edward Snowden is not a whistleblower worthy of protection, but a fugitive deserving of prosecution,” said Menendez. “He violated his sworn pledge to protect classified information. He jeopardized our national security. And he betrayed the trust of the American people. This man is no hero.”
Alexei Pushkov, the head of the International Affairs Committee in Russia’s Duma, was quoted by Reuters as saying, “Ties are in a rather complicated phase, and when ties are in such a phase, when one country undertakes hostile action against another, why should the United States expect restraint and understanding from Russia?”
The Kremlin claimed it had no prior knowledge of Snowden coming to Moscow or where he currently is — but also made clear that it won’t be jumping in to hand Snowden back to the U.S.
“Snowden did nothing illegal in Russia. There are also no orders for his arrest through Interpol to Russian law enforcement agencies,” RIA-Novosti news agency quoted an unnamed security official.
China’s state-run press agency Xinhua reveled in the moment by leading its site Monday evening with “White House expecting Russia to expel Snowden back to U.S.”
The story opened into a full package of pieces on the Snowden affair, including a Sunday commentary saying “Washington owes world explanations over troubling spying accusations.”
“In the past few months, U.S. politicians and media outlets have thrown out Internet spying accusations one after another against China, trying to make it as one of the biggest perpetrators of Internet spying activities. And those claims were even highlighted during a highly anticipated summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama held earlier this month in California, which had been designed to help the world’s two biggest economies to build a new type of major power relations,” the commentary said.
“The ball is now in Washington’s court. The U.S. government had better move to allay the concerns of other countries.”
Like clockwork, today The Moscow Times ran a photo of Obama at the Berlin Wall last week with the headline “Russia Could Stand in Way of Obama’s Nuclear Cuts.”